Ethan J. Leib


Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. 134. $15.95.

We should applaud Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, for making an attempt to build a coherent political philosophy using only the building blocks of aesthetics. The result is On Beauty and Being Just, based on the Tanner Lectures she gave at Yale University in 1998. The book is a blueprint for a stable but revolutionary building that doesn't need a foundation. But, upon examination, Scarry makes gestures to the metaphysical architects who can't conceive of how to build a theory of justice without philosophical first principles. Admittedly, an antifoundationalist approach to justice is as likely to be edifying as structurally frightening. But when Scarry's modest analogical program is distinguished from its more teleological and ambitious reaches, we can better appreciate both the uses and disadvantages of recruiting aesthetics as a handmaiden to politics.

Scarry's book draws our attention to the fact that discussions of the beautiful have fallen out of fashion in academic and even popular discourses. She thinks that many theorists have been successful in arguing that attention to the beautiful distracts us from more important, more pressing things in life. "The problem of lateral disregard, the problem that whatever benefits accrue to an object through its being the focus of our attention are not being equally enjoyed by nearby objects in the same class," is linked with the "political complaint about inattention to problems of social injustice" and power dynamics. Beauty's critics worry that fixation upon the beautiful might cause such disregard and inattention.