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Mary Mothersill Remembered
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Mary Mothersill Remembered

Mary Wiseman

Mary Mothersill, long time professor of philosophy at Barnard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Columbia University, would tell those writing doctoral dissertations under her guidance, of whom I was one, to write for the intelligent fourteen year old. Because, she would have said, the fourteen year old was apt to be innocent of the obfuscating theories and conventions of thought that under the guise of explaining the world put themselves between it and the individual whose world it is.

Mothersill sought an unobstructed view of this world “of which there is at most one” and strove to see it clear and see it true, to see it for herself. One has to learn how to look through the scrim of ideas to get to the world “neat,” and so early in her career she wrote on the work of Lewis and Arnold Isenberg, whose ways of looking were close to what she would find her own to be. By concentrating on their work, she learned first how to get through their work to its subject and then how to get to the subject on her own. Always her goal was to see it straight and say it plain.

In mid-career, she, like C. I. Lewis, began work on a problem inherited from Kant. Whereas Lewis gave a pragmatic reading of the categorical imperative, Mary Mothersill turned to the Third Critique and the problem of how aesthetic judgments can be more than expressions of personal taste since there are no principles that allow one to judge that an object with a given aesthetic property will be beautiful. Her solution is in Beauty Restored (Oxford University Press, 1984). It lay in a causal theory of beauty that did an end run around the issue of principles and the deductions they supported. Works of art and nature whose mere perception pleases are judged to do so by virtue of a unique configuration of their ordinary properties, the configuration is aesthetically unique but repeatable – only so could it be a cause – in that any object perceptually indistinguishable from it would also please. Given this sense of “aesthetic property,” an object can be said to be beautiful “if and only if it is such as to be a cause of pleasure in virtue of its aesthetic properties.”

People are like art objects in that the configuration of their properties of mind and body, together with their history, social and genetic, is unique. What is interesting about people is precisely that no one is just like anyone else, and the more unlike, the more interesting. And so was Mary Mothersill, a woman whose work in aesthetics has the same structure as would an inquiry into how an individual’s thoughts and feelings can be governed by no principle and yet, because they are not merely expressions of the personal, lay claim to truth and authenticity, lay claim to a hearing. She had a vivid sense of what was distinctive about an individual, person or artwork, as was shown by her knowing and feeling relations with works of art, music, and literature, and with friends. Although she lived alone, traveled alone, and would have had it no other way, she was a good friend, working hard – and being good – at finding what to say when one had need, as many of us had, of Mary’s virtues of seeing things straight and saying them plain.

In December 1998, Mary Mothersill gave her presidential address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. It was on aging. She was 75. The paper was a plea for a new model of aging, one that neither put the old beyond the pale, out of the play of the world, nor blamed them for whatever ills time had brought them because they had not kept themselves so fit as to resist its woes. Mary said then that she was not afraid of dying, but was just not ready to die yet because there was much she wanted and had still to do, like learning to play the Bach Inventions. She was to have a decade more in which to do what she wanted to do.

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