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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Beauty and Complexity, Aesthetics and Law

Sometimes people say that a simple theory is an elegant theory.  Or one might hear that a theory is beautiful in its simplicity.  That might mean that a simple theory is an effective theory, and that in turn could have two other meanings: (1) the theory's simplicity will allow more people to understand it in the first place; and/or (2) the theory's simplicity will mean that people who understand it and find it appealing are most likely to apply it correctly (or as intended).  Both of these meanings really have to do with the theory's influence, or its expediency, or the capacity of the theory to reach desirable results: if you want your theory to be influential, to be useable, to be applied as you intend and to reach the consequences for which you intend it, it's wise to make your theory as simple as possible.

But I take the prejudice in favor of simplicity sometimes to mean something more than an argument from effectiveness.  The equation of simplicity with elegance seems to be an aesthetic claim as well -- that simple theories are beautiful, elegant, artful, and that theories become uglier or progressively inelegant as they become more complex and ornamented.  In legal theory, in the fields with which I am familiar, simplicity is often seen as an intrinsic virtue, and its virtue seems somehow fundamentally connected to an aesthetic sensibility.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, please, not Bernini.   

I may be quite wrong about the impressions above, but having these thoughts suggests another set of questions that I'm hopeful the learned readership here will know something about.  First, has there been any scholarship on the relationship between legal theory and aesthetics -- how and why it is that we find one kind or genre of legal theoretical account more appealing, from an aesthetic point of view, than another?  Second, and more generally, what does the scholarly landscape of law and aesthetics look like?  Has anyone thought about, for example, Roger Scruton's work in aesthetics in the context of legal scholarship?  Are there any connections between aesthetics and IP law (I could have selected other fields, but this one seems like it might offer something particularly interesting)?  I suppose the law and literature movement may have explored the aesthetics of opinion-writing, and perhaps there are other connections that have been probed there as well.  Is there a future for law and aesthetics (or not), and if so, in what might it consist?

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on February 9, 2011 at 03:51 PM | Permalink


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I would also look in more depth into the ways in which elegance is considered a virtue in mathematics and in computer science. Some of this is highly practical: elegant, clean computer code is actually much easier for others to understand and maintain. Some of it is a expression of understanding: an elegant proof tells you much more about the underlying structure of the objects you are studying. And some of it is a wholly aesthetic reaction.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 13, 2011 11:47:03 AM

Marc, I don't think it's neoclassical of me to point out that human preference is rooted in pleasure. We choose simple ideas over complex ones because of the response they evoke in others.

No one communicates by what they say, but only by people's reaction to what they say. Reasoning that's too full of caveats and uncertainty won't fit comfortably in other people's minds. Is it neoclassical to notice that people don't enjoy having things crammed into their heads?

Right now in the narrow street beneath my window the students are smashing things. I have some theories about what's going on, but I can't test them from inside. And neither can you test yours, I'm afraid. Blame Godel, that's what I do.

Also I'd skip SSRN if I were you and jump straight into Pinker. Especially for his description of how the limits of working memory predict bounded rationality. After that could I recommend Silva's "Psychology of Interest" followed by maybe by run at Clausewitz's didactic on the utility of theory. That last one's off the traveled-path --but then so is Mr. Scruton- and like Roger he's a reward of himself.


Soto voce: I can't decide whether your post is a joke. --If it is I'm impressed; and if it's not I'm probably more impressed.
Have fun!

Posted by: Rena Ambreson | Feb 11, 2011 5:08:59 PM

Thanks, Mark and Ethan, for the pieces. Ethan, Scarry's claim about the dual meaning of "fair" and "fairness" is interesting -- that somehow we find a kind of biological aesthetic pleasure in symmetry and balance, and, by extension, equality. Certainly that is a neo-classical preference, and it's fun to think about the analogues between artistic styles that emphasize both symmetry/balance as compared with asymmetry/imbalance (e.g., renaissance and neoclassical art as compared with mannerist, baroque, or romantic art...one could do something similar with "classical" music, too), and those political or cultural programs which do the same (e.g., Enlightenment as contrasted with Romantic).

And I thought the paper was admirably written!

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 11, 2011 10:30:06 AM

Surely not my best piece of work (I think I can be forgiven for my intellectual immaturity 11 years ago) -- but you might check out "On the Difficulty of Imagining an Aesthetic Politics," 12 Yale J.L. & Human. 151 (2000) (reviewing Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (1999)).

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Feb 11, 2011 9:54:10 AM

This brings to mind a recent article in Philosophical Investigations questioning the concept of mathematical beauty and whether beauty requires visual perception: "Mathematical Beauty and Perceptual Presence," by Rob van Gerwen, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9205.2010.01432.x/abstract

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 11, 2011 9:06:50 AM

One more quick note -- I was reading the SEP entry for "simplicity" by Alan Baker yesterday -- here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/simplicity/ -- and came across this:

"Some philosophers have approached the issue of justifying simplicity principles by arguing that simplicity has intrinsic value as a theoretical goal. [Elliott] Sober, for example, writes:

Just as the question ‘why be rational?’ may have no non-circular answer, the same may be true of the question ‘why should simplicity be considered in evaluating the plausibility of hypotheses?’ (Sober 2001, p. 19).

Such intrinsic value may be ‘primitive’ in some sense, or it may be analyzable as one aspect of some broader value. For those who favor the second approach, a popular candidate for this broader value is aesthetic. [Wil] Derkse [1992] is a book-length development of this idea, and echoes can be found in Quine's remarks—in connection with his defense of Occam's Razor—concerning his taste for “clear skies” and “desert landscapes.” In general, forging a connection between aesthetic virtue and simplicity principles seems better suited to defending methodological rather than epistemic principles."

Guess I need to read Derkse's "On Simplicity and Elegance"! Pretty sure I'll never sign on to the aesthetic superiority of desert landscapes over rococo art, though.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 11, 2011 8:42:22 AM

Thanks, Dave, for all three good thoughts. On copyright matters, do you think that there is any connection between judgments about a work's originality or novelty and aesthetic judgment? Maybe one would reach different conclusions about a work's originality depending on one's aesthetic sensibilities?

On Occam, yes, but I've always thought that Occam's razor comes down to the truism that -- as applied to a theory -- a theory should be no more complicated than necessary. Necessary for what? For being effective, or for achieving a desired outcome, or for being appealing (including appealing in some kind of aesthetic way), or for being true or accurate?

I suspect that an aesthetic preference for theoretical simplicity can mislead us into believing that simpler theories are also truer theories, and that (greater) theoretical complexity is therefore generally not "necessary" (and ugly on top of it).

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 11, 2011 8:12:49 AM

Interesting post. Three disconnected thoughts,

Pierre Schlag has written about this: The Aesthetics of American Law, 115 Harvard Law Review 1047 (2002)

Re your question about IP law, I'm reminded of Holmes' principle of aesthetic nondiscrimination, which is that the aesthetic merit of a work of authorship is unrelated to whether it merits copyright protection. The rationale for this is that judges' lack of specific knowledge about art makes them well-situated to make evaluations about aesthetic matters (which may be somewhat puzzling because we seem at ease with allowing generalist judges to play at being economists or sociologists regardless of their training).

Finally, the idea of simplicity as a criterion of validity in theories is by no means new or confined to law. It's been around at least as long as the 14th c. with Ockham's Razor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor

Posted by: Dave | Feb 10, 2011 5:35:12 PM

Lior Strahil, "Consent, Aesthetics, and the Boundaries of Sexual Privacy after Lawrence v. Texas." 54 DePaul Law Review 671 (2005).

Posted by: Carmine Callicanos | Feb 9, 2011 5:55:43 PM

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

--Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819

Posted by: Rena Ambreson | Feb 9, 2011 5:05:15 PM

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