Connecting Capabilities: 'A reason to value' (aesthetic) experience. Paper given at HDCA Conference, London, 11th September, 2019.

Connecting Capabilities “A Reason to Value” (Aesthetic) Experience




This paper challenges us to re-think the role of (aesthetic) experience in the Capability Approach (CA). It does so from within a novel aesthetic critical realist (ACR) perspective. Three major points are argued. First, that in order “to do or be what we have reason to value” we must be able to experience valuable capabilities. Second, that this substantive freedom constitutes a capability set in its own right. Third, that, in turn, we can understand and account for this capability set in terms of a realist re-conceptualisation of aesthetic experience, artful practice and culture (thereby challenging “taken for granted” assumptions about the nature and role of aesthetics, the arts and culture, in society). The paper outlines the pivotal nature of aesthetic capability, artful capability and cultural capability for capability development. It is argued that these three capabilities (a capability set) are required for any and all acts of human creativity; together, therefore, they constitute what might be termed “creative capability”. The paper concludes by making the case for the centrality of creative capability within the CA, and points towards the far-reaching implications of taking it more seriously, not least in the contested context of cultural development.

Key words:

aesthetic experience; art; culture; value; critical realism; creative capability




In the words of Amartya Sen, capability concerns “the real opportunity that we have to accomplish what we value” (Sen 1992, 31; see also Sen 1999, 74). It refers to a person or group’s freedom to promote or achieve valuable functionings[i], and “represents the various combinations of functionings (beings and doings) that the person can achieve.” (Sen 1992, 40). Sen’s underlying argument is that a person’s functionings – those things that they may value doing or being - together create a better conceptual space in which to assess social welfare than utility. In turn, the Capability Approach[ii] (CA) is a “broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society” (Robeyns 2005, 94). At its heart is a “focus on what people are able to do and be, on the quality of their life, and on removing obstacles in their lives so that they have more freedom to live the kind of life that, upon reflection, they have reason to value.” (Robeyns 2005, 94, my italics) With one eye on justice and another on poverty reduction, the approach looks “to expand the freedom that deprived people have to enjoy ‘valuable beings and doings’” (Alkire 2005, 117) Whilst there has been much debate concerning the merits of particular capabilities, and how we might rank these as more or less “valuable” in any given societal context, this paper argues that such discussion overlooks a more fundamental issue, which is pivotal to the CA’s “open” and “pluralistic” purposes being achieved in practice: How do we come to know what we have “reason to value”? It is a matter of logical necessity that we can only pursue capabilities we have “reason to value” if we first experience them as valuable (or potentially of value)[iii]. How we come to hold value(s), therefore, is philosophically prior to arguing which values should be held on any list of (basic or central) capabilities. This brings me to the central focus of this paper – our experience of capabilities, and the extent to which such freedom to experience capability is itself an absolutely vital, but largely unacknowledged, capability.


“Experience” is perhaps the most miraculous phenomenon we know of, but it is also the easiest to overlook. We tend to misdiagnose experience as a direct form of apprehension. Indeed, the commonly held view is that we simply experience the world directly and without any “work”; but this is a form of actualism (i.e., the reduction of the necessary and the possible to the actual). When it comes to capabilities too, I suggest that theorizing has tended to overlook experience. In what follows, therefore, I seek to absent the absence of experience from the CA. In so doing, I will also challenge widely held views about three related concepts – without which our understanding of experience and valuation would be incomplete: aesthetics, art and culture. Though as generally understood these might be readily dismissed as being of peripheral interest to the very “wordly” concerns of the CA, I will show that this is anything but the case. As such, I shall also be absenting the absence of art & culture from the capability approach, whilst in the process fundamentally challenging our understanding of these universal features of human activity – my argument being that art and culture are inescapable realities of our social being.


At the heart of Amartya Sen’s capability approach is an emphatic defense of its breadth and the pluralism of its information base:


Capabilities may relate to things near to survival (the capability to drink clean water) or those which are rather less central (the capability to visit one’s aunt, the capability to eat rich sweets). The definition of capability does not delimit a certain subset of capabilities as of peculiar importance; rather the selection of capabilities on which to focus is a value judgement (that also depends partly on the purpose of the evaluation), as is the weighting of capabilities relative to each other. (Alkire 2002, 8-9; italics in original.)


There is, of course, a big gap between the substantive freedom to drink clean water and that of visiting a relative or eating some sugary treats. Here the question of what we have “reason to value” takes on a particular and pressing perspective. First, it is not always the case that people will “know” what they have reason to value. Though drinking clean water is clearly something all people should objectively have reason to value this does not prevent many from drinking unclean water out of necessity, path dependency and cultural traditions or, indeed, because of a lack of knowledge concerning what constitutes safe drinking water. Second, as the example of eating rich sweets indicates, whilst wishing to stay true to the inherent pluralism of Sen’s approach, there is a crucial difference to be discerned between “value” and “desire”, or indeed that which is considered “good”. This is a concern that lies behind Martha Nussbaum’s (refs) complementary work on capabilities and, inter ales, her efforts to delineate “basic” or “central” capabilities from others. As Ludwig Grünberg observes “what value refers to is not a matter of what happens to be, but a matter of what ought to be.”(Grünberg 2000, 6.) Value is “trans-individual. It involves appreciation at the level of the collective conscience of a given human community” (Ibid.) and cannot be restricted to the preferences of individual conscience. This perspective is also very much in keeping with David Graeber’s (2001) anthropological theory of value which states:


The desirable refers not simply to what people actually want – in practice, people want all sorts of things [e.g., sugary sweets]. Values are ideas about what they ought to want. They are the criteria by which people judge which desires they consider legitimate and worth-while and which they do not. Values, then, are ideas if not necessarily about the meaning of life, then at least about what one could justifiably want from it. (Graeber 2001, 3.)


This emergent relationship between our beliefs and our judgements is further accounted for in Andrew Sayer’s definition of values as “‘sedimented’ valuations that have become attitudes or dispositions, which we come to regard as justified. They merge into emotional dispositions and inform the evaluations we make of particular things, as part of our conceptual and affective apparatus.” (Sayer 2011, 26.) This realist definition is very helpful – not least for countering the knee-jerk and reductionist economic view of “value”, which is so dominant in everyday discourse today. However, it still leaves the question of how we come to make valuations in the first place.


The process of valuation is not straightforward in the context of capabilities, which like possibilities or opportunities of any kind, cannot be directly observed. (Alkire 2002, 181.) Sen writes, “the capability set is not directly observable, and has to be constructed on the basis of presumptions (just as the ‘budget set’ in consumer analysis is also so constructed on the basis of data regarding income, prices and the presumed possibilities of exchange)”. (Sen 1992, 52). “Theorization is an inescapable step in the construction of a ‘capability set’ comprising ‘what functionings a person could have.’” (Ibid.) It is worth noting here how the issue of who is doing the theorizing is all too easily overlooked. Two important issues arise. First, within the logic of the CA there is then an inherent tendency for valuations to be made on behalf of others – less fortunate or perhaps less “knowledgeable” than those doing the valuing. Liberal critics of Sen often point to CA’s focus around “the ability to achieve the kind of lives we have reason to value” as problematic because this appears to impose an external valuation of “the good life”, regardless of what people may actually value. This is also a concern that Alkire’s (2002) work on “participatory” development approaches seeks to address. Second, people’s coming to “know” valuable capabilities (through experience) must itself be understood as a substantive freedom they possess (or not). In short, without the substantive freedom to experience capabilities, capabilities (these and/or different ones) are likely to be decided by “others” on the basis of what they consider valuable functionings. This clearly is (potentially at least) contrary to the pluralist spirit and ethos of the CA, if in practice it denies the central freedom it sets out to support. It would seem paramount that within the CA there should be an explicit and primary focus on promoting those capabilities that enable people to experience capabilities for themselves. As we’ll see this needs to be understood as a set of “combined” capabilities, which I contend operate across what can be thought of as three different levels of reality: i) an “inner” disposition affording the emergent experience of being-in-relation with a capability (aesthetic experience); ii) the skills and resources required for giving shareable form to this aesthetic experience such that it can be communicated and expressed between people (artful practice), and iii) the freedom to voice needs and play a democratic role in our system(s) of value recognition (culture).


The paper is structured in four parts. The first introduces critical realism as providing the necessary meta-theoretical justification for the position so far outlined. In fact, the CA and theorists of capabilities and human development are no strangers to this philosophical perspective (see, for example, Martins 2006; 2007; 2009; 2011; Longshore Smith and Seward 2009). The crucial contribution of critical realism is its particular commitment towards ontology i.e., our theories of being. In keeping with Nuno Martins’ account, we can treat capabilities as causal powers. As their name suggests, these are causally generative features of the world; crucially, however, they are not directly observable. We cannot see a power; we don’t directly apprehend forces, potentials, possibilities or indeed opportunities; but this is not to say that we therefore have no “knowledge” of them through our experience. Indeed, in the second part I draw explicitly on my recently developed realist theory of art (Wilson forthcoming; see also Wilson and Gross 2017) to argue for a depth ontology of experience that accounts for just this aspect of our lives. Here we are introduced to realist conceptualisations of aesthetic experience, art, and culture, respectively.


In the third section of the paper I move on from identifying the significance of aesthetic, artful and cultural concerns to argue that without our freedom to draw on them collectively we would not be able to experience valuable capabilities. I point towards a “combined” set of capabilities, which significantly impact our individual value judgements (and without which we would not in fact be able to value anything ourselves). In the spirit of “connecting capabilities” I argue that this capability set might in fact be thought of as the capability for creativity – or creative capability. In short, human creativity is necessarily aesthetic, artful and cultural. N.B. to be very clear – this is by no means an argument for privileging either (Kantian) aesthetics or the particular field of the arts in respect of human creativity. Indeed, the argument being made might be thought of as, in some respects at least, emancipating aesthetic experience from “aesthetics”, and art from “the arts”.


The final section offers a brief discussion of implications arising from this paper’s argument for experiencing capabilities. In particular, I consider their potential significance for on-going research in the field of cultural development. Whilst the focus of economic development policy might be re-directed towards expanding “valuable capabilities”, cultural development policy might be re-directed to focus on the expansion of those capabilities that enable our experience of such valuable capabilities, i.e., on creative capability. The implications of this would be profound and far-reaching.


The ontology of capability – A critical realist perspective


As Martha Nussbaum has written “accounts of development that are produced without the active and ongoing participation of philosophy leave a lot to be desired.” (Nussbaum 2015, 12) The particular philosophical account I want to highlight here is that of critical realism. My aim, in the first instance, is to better account for the type of “thing” that a capability actually is. Stating things in this way emphasises the ontological over the epistemological; i.e., our theories of what exists as opposed to our knowledge of that which exists.[iv] This focus on the ontological is shared by a number of commentators who have written about the CA. Amongst them, Nuno Martins’ work is perhaps most well-known (2006; 2007; 2009; 2011). Describing Sen’s approach as “a philosophical under-labouring exercise” (2006, 671) Martins presents a case for Sen’s conceptualisation of capabilities being rooted in a shared understanding and commitment to a realist ontology of “causal powers”. He suggests that “Sen’s conception of freedom is one where the capability or power to achieve must be a real possibility.” (Martins 2006, 673). Martins’ work draws on Tony Lawson’s (1997, 2003) structured ontology, which is itself heavily influenced by Roy Bhaskar’s seminal works on the philosophy of science (A Realist Theory of Science (1975)) and social-science (The Possibility of Naturalism (1979)). Amongst many insights, this body of work recognises that all knowledge is conceptually mediated, and therefore all our observations of the world are “theory laden”, but this does not determine what reality is like. Critical realism explains how the world is “stratified” and “differentiated”. There exists in the world different things, operating at and across discrete levels. A vitally important manifestation of this stratified reality is the division of reality into three domains: the events that take place in the “actual” domain; our experiences of these events in the “empirical” domain; and then a third domain of the “real” which comprises, inter ales, the mechanisms, causal powers and potentials (c.f. capabilities) that cause the events we experience. As Martins further explains:


Structures are the underlying conditions of possibility that enable or facilitate the occurrence of a given phenomenon. Structures comprise powers that may or may not be exercised and, when exercised, may or may not be actualised in actual events and states of affairs. Mechanisms refer to the mode of operation of structures and exist as the power that a structure possesses of acting in a given way. This operation of mechanisms, when exercised, triggers forces into motion, which Lawson names tendencies. The term “tendency” is meant to capture the idea of a continuous activity that may or may not be actualised in concrete events and states of affairs, even when it is continuously exercised. (Martins, 2006: 676.)


According to this critical realist logic capabilities are both means and ends of socio-economic development. As Sen argues, they are “(ethical) ends to the extent that capabilities are the informational basis (or the relevant ‘space’) for assessing inequality” (Martins 2006, 676). They also constitute a “more appropriate informational basis than ‘primary goods’, ‘resources’ or ‘utilities’.” (Ibid) But more than this, “capabilities are also the means to development, because they are the causal powers (which arise in virtue of underlying structures) that enable change and transformation.” (Ibid.) The importance of these insights extends well beyond the boundaries of this paper; indeed, it might be suggested, for example, that there is an urgent need to reconceptualise the “economy” in terms of how we manage capabilities.


It is one thing to theorise capabilities as ontologically “real” causal powers; it is another thing to recognise or “know” them as one’s own (and to present a realist ontology of this epistemological process). In this respect, it is apparent from a review of leading literature on the CA that there exist the twin tendencies of i) assuming that valuable capabilities somehow exist without being experienced (or at least – taking experience for granted); and ii) defining capabilities in terms of valuable functionings, therefore tending towards a form of actualism. To explain in more detail what I have in mind, I offer three examples from the literature here (in doing so fully conceding that I am taking quotations out of context, but that this is in the service of making the general point – not criticizing the authors concerned). First, Ingrid Robeyns (2005, 95) writes that “once [people] effectively have … substantive opportunities, they can choose those options that they value most.” I am prompted to ask - what exactly does “have[ing] a substantive opportunity” actually involve? Can one “have” such an opportunity but not “know” it? Second, Sabina Alkire writes of “a person’s achieved functionings at any given time [being] the particular functionings he/she has successfully pursued and realized” (Alkire 2005, 120). She further draws attention to “the freedom to decide which path to take, or the freedom to bring about achievements one considers to be valuable, whether or not these achievements are connected to one’s own well-being or not” (Alkire 2005, 120) Again, my question is how we come to “decide” whether or not something is “valuable” in the first place? Finally, Amartya Sen himself characterises his approach as having allegiance with the philosophical notion of “positive freedom” i.e., a person's ability to do the things in question taking everything into account: ‘We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion … When we speak of freedom as something so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying”. (Sen 2002, 586–7, emphasis in original) Here, the underlying assumption remains that what is “worth doing or enjoying” is at least somehow “available” to people in the first place. My argument calls this into question. But in doing so it also raises the very challenging issue of just how we might experience a capability – given it is not directly observable?


Experiencing capabilities – Introducing aesthetic critical realism


From the outset, the philosophical project of critical realism has been suspicious of “experience”. Roy Bhaskar writes “the crux of my objection to the doctrine of empirical realism should … be clear. By constituting an ontology based on the category of experience as expressed in the concept of the empirical world and mediated by the ideas of the actuality of the causal laws and the ubiquity of constant conjunctions, three domains of reality are collapsed into one.” (Bhaskar 1975, 56-57.) In effect, empirical realists are seen as placing too much trust in the empirical, leading to “the analysis or definition of statements about being in terms of statements about our knowledge (of being)”. (Bhaskar 1993, 397.) To the extent that we tend to try and explain things in terms of what we observe (this is the logic of empirical realism), we are more than likely to succumb to actualism – the reduction of the necessary and the possible to the actual, and its associated error referred to as the epistemic fallacy, i.e., “the fallacious inference that because there is no epistemologically objective view of the world, there is also no objective world ontologically” (Archer, Collier and Porpora 2004, 2). For my own part, these central arguments of the critical realist project are convincing. However, as someone who has worked most centrally in the experiential context of art, culture and creativity, I have become increasingly committed to applying this philosophy of science to the domain of art and aesthetic experience – crucially in a way that doesn’t unduly or uncritically privilege this sector of human activity. Indeed, this has been the central project of my academic life over the last decade or so. The culmination of this project, thus far at least, has just come to publication (Wilson, 2020). Whilst the arguments I develop under the label of “Aesthetic Critical Realism” (henceforth ACR) are complex, and extend well beyond the remit of this paper, it will be useful to summarise the key contributions of this theoretical development here. I do this with reference to aesthetic critical realist definitions of four pivotal terms: experience; aesthetic experience; art; and culture. In so doing, I am supported in the claim that we can, and indeed do, experience capabilities – and furthermore, that this is absolutely central to our ongoing understanding not just of the CA, but to our relations with culture and the economy more generally.


My starting position is to explain more precisely what I mean by experience. There is, of course, an extensive literature relating to this phenomenon, embracing inter ales discussion of consciousness, (see Brewer 2011) the “problem of perception” (Crane and French 2017), and phenomenology (see, for example, Edmund Husserl (Introduction to Pure Phenomenology); Martin Heidegger (Being and Time); Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness); Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex); or Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception)). My theorisation defines experience as “our cognitive conscious and nonconscious knowledge gained through interaction with the environment” (Wilson forthcoming, x). Two aspects of this definition are worth highlighting. First, the fact that experience is a form of knowledge production gained through interaction with the world around us. Experience is not just internal reflections or musings “in our head”. As phenomenologists have long argued, we are “thrown” into the world in which we live, and our experiences are “about” things we encounter. Second, though “knowledge” tends to be considered narrowly in terms of cognitive conscious thoughts, ideas, beliefs etc., my definition emphasises the sense in which experiential knowledge crucially also embraces our “unthought knowns” (Bollas, 2018), i.e., when we “know” something perhaps as a feeling, a hunch, an intuition etc., rather than as a cognised idea. Within cognitive biology this is referred to in terms of “nonconscious” knowledge (see Hayles 2017). This attention towards the holistic nature of knowledge is vitally important when it comes to explaining aesthetic experience (my next term).


Whilst the “aesthetic” is commonly associated with our knowledge of the world gained through our senses, the ACR definition I propose sheds vital light on our capacity to experience phenomena that are “real” but nonetheless unobservable (including capabilities). This definition also draws on critical realism’s understanding of “emergence”. As Tony Lawson explains “emergence may be defined as a relationship between two features or aspects such that one arises out of the other and yet, while perhaps being capable of reacting back on it, remains causally and taxonomically irreducible to it” (Lawson 1997, 63). An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. Accordingly, I define aesthetic experience as “our emergent experience of being-in-relation with the real”[v] – that is to say the domain of reality that extends beyond our direct observation, comprising relations, structures, mechanisms, possibilities, powers, processes, systems, forces, values, ways of being, and yes – capabilities too. So, to have an “experience” of a capability is an aesthetic experience – because it is an experience of being-in-relation with the real – in this case a substantive freedom or opportunity, which under the CA we call a “capability”.


Thus far the focus of analytical attention is on a very private phenomenon. Our experiences and our aesthetic experiences are ours alone. We cannot share them directly. But this is precisely where the practice of art comes into play.[vi] Under ACR I define art as “the skilled practice of giving shareable form to our aesthetic experience” (Wilson 2020). In practice, the form this sharing takes is enormously varied, as are the nature and level of the skills required. Most importantly, this conception of art is inclusive. It is not exhausted by activities undertaken within “the arts”, or, indeed, by those individuals we call “artists”; nor should it be conflated with “artworks”, which I define as aesthetically real objects, i.e., capable of being experienced and giving rise to aesthetic experience.


Finally, whether or not people consider this sharing of aesthetic experience to be “valuable” (a focal notion in the context of this paper) is contingent upon culture. Here again, I am mindful that this is a term used in multifarious ways. There is a vast literature relating to culture and the competing accounts of what it entails. As Raymond Williams famously remarked “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams 1983: 87; for helpful discussion see also Jackson 2009) Against this background I offer a novel ACR definition: culture, as “our system(s) of value recognition, is constituted by, emergent from, but irreducible to clusters of culture (oriented) axiological phenomena that are consciously and/or unconsciously reproduced or transformed through people’s (creative) practice” (Wilson 2020: 143). Two points of clarification can be made here. First, whilst people often talk of culture as denoting shared views or beliefs, or in lay-speak “the way of doing things round here”, as Margaret Archer observes, this perpetuates a “myth of integration” (Archer 1996; see also Archer and Elder-Vass 2011: 96). Cultures are not homogeneous. Indeed, oftentimes, people subject to a particular culture do not agree with the values it espouses. Under my ACR definition, culture does not denote shared “cultural values”; rather it indicates shared systems of value recognition. Cultures in the plural exist at a variety of levels – from the local family-context, say, through to regional, international or global levels. Furthermore, culture is “at work” everywhere. Though we don’t tend to think of it this way, the capitalist market-driven economy, politics, our modes of leadership and governance, the arts and cultural sector – these are all (overlapping) systems of value recognition. This observation is enormously important, but appears to have been largely overlooked within cultural sociology and cultural studies more broadly. It is also important for the CA. The second clarification is to highlight the sense in which our systems of value recognition, and the underlying structures and institutions that underpin them, are reproduced and transformed through our (creative) practices.


To explain further how this process operates we can return, in the first instance, to the quotation from Nuno Martins, offered earlier in the paper. “Structures are the underlying conditions of possibility that enable or facilitate the occurrence of a given phenomenon. Structures comprise powers that may or may not be exercised and, when exercised, may or may not be actualised in actual events and states of affairs.” (Martins 2006: 676) This has its roots in Aristotelian thinking, and the notion of the dispositional nature of being. According to this logic, causal powers and generative mechanisms can be in existence without necessarily producing any effects. We might then usefully posit a dispositional realist account of value, according to which, the world contains a priori forces or powers, i.e., forms of energy that constitute “natural necessity”; but values only exist because we have the capacity to experience these through our aesthetic (axiological) experience. Though I am necessarily cutting a much longer discussion and justification short (for detailed explanation please see Wilson, 2020, Chapters 5 & 7), I argue that the world as we encounter it is always already of inherent worth (“worth”’s proto-Germanic etymological root is wertha, meaning “toward, opposite”, carrying the notion of a force – but understood in a particular sense). I distinguish between forces and values; analytically there are four stages to my dispositional account of value:


i)               The independent existence of forces and powers in nature, i.e., natural necessity; [power(s)]

ii)              Human beings’ aesthetic experience of these powers, i.e., emergent experience of being-in-relation with these real phenomena as “value(s)”, but no action (movement) taken; [unexercised value(s)]

iii)            Individual action (movement) taken as a result of (ii), embracing now a level of individual (self-)recognition; [exercised value(s)]

iv)            Collective recognition of “value” (as valuable) on the basis of (i)-(iv); [actualised value(s)]. N.B. this recognition forms the first conditioning phase for any future morphogenetic cycle.


What is being argued here is a dispositional, emergent and socially-contextualised account of value(s) (one, incidentally, that is consistent with Andrew Sayer’s realist account introduced earlier) based on a realist ontology of experience, and aesthetic experience as an emergent experience of being-in-relation with the forces of the world (including capabilities).


Connecting capabilities: Aesthetic, artful and cultural


It would be misleading to paint HDCA theory as having wholly overlooked experience. All the same, treatment of it, thus far, has been largely incidental, at best. Ingrid Robeyns (2005), for example, suggests that experience might be regarded as a “personal conversion factor”, such as metabolism, physical condition, sex, reading skills, or intelligence (Robeyns 2005, 99). The problem with this position, at least in so far as it relates to experience, is that it implies that it is a “given” rather than, to some degree at least, being dependent upon particular circumstances, and subject to change over time. A key implication of the ACR approach outlined in this paper is to recognise that our capacity to experience a valuable capability is itself a “freedom” (to employ Sen’s wording) that we have more or less of. Indeed, our individual capacity to experience valuable capabilities must itself be conceptualised in terms of a vital set of capabilities. This is what I set out to explain in this section.


I return once more to the interface between critical realist theory and the literature on capabilities and human development. Referring to an “ontological conception of a relational society” (Longshore Smith and Seward 2009: 213.) Matthew Longshore Smith and Carolina Seward propose a useful three-step process for conceptualising a capability “in its totality”. This involves firstly, conceptualising the necessary individual capacities involved; secondly, identifying the necessary social structures that enable this capability (i.e., “how particular social structures provide the reasons and resources for the realization of the particular capability” and the “identification of the causal powers of the social structures”… “through an understanding of the individual’s position in a role or collectivity, and how that position shapes their life chances, powers, and liabilities.” (pp. 225-6); and finally, an account of how these powers enable the generation of the associated functioning(s). (Ibid.)


I am certainly not the first to draw attention to the need to “join up” aesthetic experience, art and culture with human experiences and practices in general, rather than limit these to the particular domain of “the arts”; in particular, John Dewey’s (1934) “continuity thesis” makes just this call. However, it remains something of a “leap of faith” to follow through with its logic. I invite the reader to join with me in this project. It can then be seen that aesthetic experience maps against “necessary individual capacities involved”; the practice of art, with its attendant skills and resourcing requirements maps against the “necessary social structures that enable this”; and third, culture (as our system(s) of value recognition) maps against an “account of how these powers enable the generation of the associated functioning(s). But, in fact, we can go further to suggest that these three factors are each essential capabilities in their own right:


Aesthetic capability – is the substantive freedom to have aesthetic experience (i.e., the emergent experience of being-in-relation with the real). Contrary to shared belief – experience is not just something we do automatically; we can and do (given the right kinds of conditions) become more experienced in experiencing. Whether we do or not is contingent upon a whole range of internal and external factors (notably relating to conditions of psychological and physical safety, trust, solidarity etc.); however, aesthetic capability is an internal capability in its own right, i.e., a [more or less developed] “state of the person herself that are, so far as the person herself is concerned, sufficient conditions for the exercise of requisite functions…mature conditions of readiness”. (Nussbaum 2000, 84.). Furthermore, it is important to emphasise here that the kind of “knowledge” involved in aesthetic experience is necessarily “open”. Being-in-relation with the natural necessity of the world (such as a valuable capability) is not “known” in a directly conscious way.


Artful capability – is the substantive freedom to (more or less skillfully) give shareable form to our aesthetic experience. N.B. This is a practice. Artful practice, which centrally involves imaginative play and a form of “good enough” care (see Wilson, 2020, Chapter 10), is contingent on the skills of the individual involved, but also their access to resources (here one thinks particularly of the unequal distribution of the ownership of means of production, of access to learning, education and training etc.). We might think of artful capability as a combined capability, i.e., “internal capabilities combined with suitable external conditions for the exercise of the function.” (Ibid.) 


Cultural capability – is the substantive freedom to play an active role in determining what gets recognised as valuable, or what “counts”; it refers to our freedom to voice needs, or the substantive freedom to co-create culture. Putting this another way, it is the substantive opportunity to live one’s life as a relational subject, creating relational goods (which are valued for themselves; as are the individuals or entities in the relationship; as is the relationship itself) and benefitting from the value produced. N.B. this is a collective relational-level combined capability. There is a dialectical relation between the capabilities outlined here. For example, doing art (or as I prefer, “living artfully”) impacts culture, as culture impacts doing art.


Taking stock, I have argued that a vital step in being able do or be what one has reason to value is to be able to experience the possibility or opportunity (i.e., capability) for something as valuable. Introducing novel aesthetic critical realist (ACR) accounts of aesthetic experience, art and culture, I have further proposed that this freedom to experience valuable capabilities is itself to be understood in terms of a particular capability set, comprising aesthetic capability, artful capability and cultural capability. It needs re-emphasising that the conceptualisations put forward in respect of these freedoms challenge existing, widely-held views with regard to aesthetics, art and culture (as they do their involvement in the CA). They also challenge those working in the arts, and those responsible for cultural policy, to consider what might be the progressive implications of these theorisations for their own (often very entrenched) practices and policies.  


In the spirit of “connecting capabilities” the account presented here demands one further conceptual innovation. This is to propose the view that what is being discussed in terms of our various freedoms to experience valuable capabilities are, in fact, the very capabilities that must be present in order for individuals (and groups) to practice creativity. Indeed, I propose that this is, in fact, the capability for creativity – or creative capability. My justification for this is as follows. To begin with, I have elsewhere defined creativity from a critical realist perspective in terms of “the capability to discover and bring into being new possibilities.” (Martin and Wilson 2014, 37.) Furthermore, “human creativity may (or may not) gain individual, group, organizational, community or global recognition and this process of recognition can be influenced by many factors including psychological, economic, political and power processes.” (Ibid.) Re-assessing this two-part definition now with respect to creative capability, we can see that i) aesthetic capability is a necessary requirement of “discovering” a new possibility; ii) artful capability is a necessary requirement of “bringing into being” a new possibility; and iii) cultural capability is a necessary requirement if the “value” of this process is going to be recognised.  


Conclusions – A reason to value (aesthetic) experience


Within the CA, capability is defined as the real opportunity that we have to accomplish what we value. The argument of this paper has been that in order to have a “reason to value” a capability (or, indeed, to determine which capability is more “valuable” than any other) we must first experience it as valuable. I have then gone on to outline how this task of experiencing is itself dependent upon three capabilities – aesthetic, artful and cultural capabilities. Together these constitute a capability set, which I term creative capability. My argument is that the significance of what I have outlined here has largely been overlooked, in the CA as elsewhere. The two primary reasons for this are that i) human experience has largely been theorised in a “common sense” way that treats it as direct apprehension; and ii) that aesthetic experience, artful practice and matters of culture have, since the Enlightenment, been appropriated as “belonging” exclusively or at least in a dominant fashion to the domain of “the arts”. As much as the argument presented in this paper remains at an abstract conceptual level, I would further suggest that the implications promise to be very real and keenly felt by stakeholders of the CA and human development initiatives more broadly.


I shall limit my concluding reflections to two areas. First, I would like to clarify where the case for creative capability sits in respect to the CA’s existing debates concerning “central” or “basic” capabilities. Martha Nussbaum (2011) has produced a list of ten central capabilities, which includes:


Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason – and to do these things in a ‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing self-expressive works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to search for the ultimate meaning of life in one’s own way. Being able to have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain. (Nussbaum 2000, 78-80).


Clearly there is a good deal of common ground between Nussbaum’s list and what I am introducing in this paper (so too, her references to “practical reason”, “play”, “emotions” and so forth). Elsewhere, Nussbaum also rightly brings attention to the “neglecting” of the arts and humanities in many educational initiatives, seeing this as a deficit of a healthy democracy (Nussbaum 2006, 385). As important as these interventions are, I do not consider them to sufficiently addresses the “centrality” of what I have argued for in terms of experience and creative capability (it is interesting to note that Nussbaum frames her list of central capabilities in a book titled Creating Capabilities, which does not discuss creativity per se). To the extent that creative capability plays a role in the valuing of any (other) capability, it certainly deserves to be considered as central.


The second area of reflection concerns what is loosely referred to as “cultural development”. At present, interest in creativity, aesthetic experience, art and culture, in the West at least, are largely confined to the domain of cultural policy and the so-called “creative economy”. Understanding cultural development in this context restricts the focus to a particular group of people deemed to be “creative” who either work in a particular industry sector – the cultural and creative industries, or in creative occupations in other sectors. If we are serious about capability as a driving force of inclusive and sustainable economic and cultural development (and the CA certainly is), we need to look more broadly than this. I agree very much with Sabina Alkire’s (2002) suggestion that economic development should expand “valuable” capabilities. Following on from what I have argued in this paper, I now go further and propose that the purpose of cultural development should be the expansion of those capabilities associated with experiencing valuable capabilities, i.e., creative capability. On the basis of this we might then usefully re-conceptualise the creative economy, such that we recognise it to be a progressive social domain that emphasises the practices, discourses, and material expressions associated with the expansion of creative capability (combining aesthetic, artful and cultural capability). Unless we actively enable people to experience capabilities for themselves, societies will necessarily depend upon those with the cultural advantage (the elite’s cultural, economic and social capital) to allow them to decide for others what they ought to find valuable, based on their own value judgements. This, to some degree, will limit capabilities to already recognised “valuable functionings”. This is not inclusive or democratic, nor does it foster positive change. Actually attending to (caring for) creative capability offers a different way forward, one with potentially long-lasting implications for the citizens of developing and developed countries alike. 




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