Ned Block, philosopher, on his pair of pliers
GB Tell me why you chose your pliers.
NB The main aesthetic aspect is the feel of the pliers in your hand. They feel like an extension of your hand. I bought them at Allied Radio, a precursor of Radio Shack, in the 1950s in Chicago when I was in high school. They were heavily used even then but they still function perfectly. They are lineman pliers made by Klein and Sons, a company that started in the mid-19th century and was known in the 1950s for the best lineman’s tools. The logo is a picture of a lineman on a pole. They’re very good for stripping or bending wire. Long after I bought this tool, foolproof tools for stripping wires were produced but using this tool is more satisfying, partly because using it is an exercise of a skill from the past.
GB Do you think about the beauty of everyday objects a lot?
NB Not explicitly but of course everybody wants beauty in their lives. The beauty of the pliers is highly personal and certainly not any kind of natural beauty. With many things we find beautiful there is a strong dependency on cultural and personal context. Your porcelains for example resonate with one culture but not another. No one would appreciate the pliers who has no idea how to use them. You need to be able to imagine them in your hand, to integrate motor and visual imagery in envisioning using them. Their visual appeal to me is a matter of their affordances. “Affordance” is a term introduced by the psychologist James J. Gibson for the latent possibilities of action in the environment. To experience affordances of an object it needs to be close enough to you to grasp—in what is called peripersonal space. The photo won’t work very well since the part of your visual system that is concerned with affordances does not categorize the picture as a real three-dimensional object. That is one reason that photographs of sculptures are so disappointing. The affordance dimension is missing in many kinds of art.
I think the topic of affordances is scanted in most art criticism. Amazingly, we have two pretty much separate visual systems. One of them (the “ventral” system that starts in the visual areas in the back of the head and feeds into the sides of the head) is conscious and the one that most art exploits – but there is another one (the “dorsal” system that feeds to the top of the head) that is mainly unconscious and governs action. That is the visual system that dominates in dogs, which is why they see moving objects better than stationary objects. The dorsal system probably dominates affordances, certainly any affordances that have to do with shape or motion. My guess is that many of our more subtle aesthetic reactions are dominated by that affordance system.
GB Does beauty ever come up in your work?
NB Every philosopher would like to be able to write and think beautifully. Many philosophers value simplicity – I certainly do – and simplicity is a kind of theoretical beauty.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
NB There are some aesthetic values that derive from human universal perceptual capacities, such as symmetry. But this object is beautiful mainly because of its personal meaning. I’ve used this tool, I made a Tesla coil with it. It fitted into my life at a certain time and reminds me of that time. I have noticed that physical universal beauty doesn’t seem to play as big a role on your site as one might have thought. I haven’t noticed anyone picking a famous painting that means nothing to them personally.