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Aesthetics. The Philosophy Portal.











Aesthetics


Aesthetics may be defined narrowly as the theory of beauty, or more broadly as that together with the philosophy of art. The traditional interest in beauty itself broadened, in the eighteenth century, to include the sublime, and since 1950 or so the number of pure aesthetic concepts discussed in the literature has expanded even more. Traditionally, the philosophy of art concentrated on its definition, but recently this has not been the focus, with careful analyses of aspects of art largely replacing it. Philosophical aesthetics is here considered to center on these latter-day developments. Thus, after a survey of ideas about beauty and related concepts, questions about the value of aesthetic experience and the variety of aesthetic attitudes will be addressed, before turning to matters which separate art from pure aesthetics, notably the presence of intention. That will lead to a survey of some of the main definitions of art which have been proposed, together with an account of the recent “de-definition” period. The concepts of expression, representation, and the nature of art objects will then be covered.

Introduced into the philosophical lexicon during the Eighteenth Century, the term ‘aesthetic’ has come to be used to designate, among other things, a kind of object, a kind of judgment, a kind of attitude, a kind of experience, and a kind of value. For the most part, aesthetic theories have divided over questions particular to one or another of these designations: whether artworks are necessarily aesthetic objects; how to square the allegedly perceptual basis of aesthetic judgments with the fact that we give reasons in support of them; how best to capture the elusive contrast between an aesthetic attitude and a practical one; whether to define aesthetic experience according to its phenomenological or representational content; how best to understand the relation between aesthetic value and aesthetic experience. But questions of more general nature have lately arisen, and these have tended to have a skeptical cast: whether any use of ‘aesthetic’ may be explicated without appeal to some other; whether agreement respecting any use is sufficient to ground meaningful theoretical agreement or disagreement; whether the term ultimately answers to any legitimate philosophical purpose that justifies its inclusion in the lexicon. The skepticism expressed by such general questions did not begin to take hold until the later part of the 20th century, and this fact prompts the question whether (a) the concept of the aesthetic is inherently problematic and it is only recently that we have managed to see that it is, or (b) the concept is fine and it is only recently that we have become muddled enough to imagine otherwise. Adjudicating between these possibilities requires a vantage from which to take in both early and late theorizing on aesthetic matters.

Although aesthetics is a significant area of research in its own right in the analytic philosophical tradition, aesthetics frequently seems to be accorded less value than philosophy of language, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and other areas of value theory such as ethics and political philosophy. Many of the most prominent analytic philosophers have not written on aesthetics at all. Matters stand very differently in continental philosophy, where aesthetics has been given an important place by nearly every major thinker and tradition. There are undoubtedly important extra-philosophical reasons for this—such as the importance of art in European education and tradition and the French model of the philosophe as philosopher-writer—but there are also clearly philosophical reasons. In the analytic tradition, meaning and truth are frequently thought to be exemplified by logic, science, and the formal structures of language, whereas in continental philosophy, art has often taken this role of exemplifying meaning and truth. As such, art becomes akin to a philosophical activity insofar as it is thought to produce meaning and truth, and aesthetics takes an important place because it is seen as a branch of philosophy which gives access to some of philosophy’s perennially central concerns. Moreover, while the analytic tradition tends to abstract aesthetic questions from other concerns, the continental tradition tends to think about its role in relation to epistemology and metaphysics, to emphasise art’s historical and social situatedness, and to ask questions concerning its role and value in culture, politics, and everyday life. However, and in further contrast to analytic aesthetics, there is no general consensus concerning central topics of debate in continental aesthetics. Instead, and following a method of organisation typical of continental philosophy, this area of aesthetics may be approached according to major traditions and thinkers. This article gives a synoptic overview of such in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The ideas developed by each often remain highly unique, yet they have also influenced and reacted against each other (and these points of contact are marked within the article). Most of these developments have taken place in critical relation with modern and nineteenth-century aesthetics, especially as exemplified by the works of Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790) has been particularly important in shaping debates in later continental aesthetics, since on the one hand it stakes out aesthetics as a domain autonomous in relation to other areas of philosophical concern, such as epistemology and practical philosophy, and on the other it shows how this domain has relevance for other areas, (In Kant’s system, aesthetics provides a model for how judgement acts as a power that can unify the other branches of philosophical interest.)

If aesthetics is the philosophical inquiry into art and beauty (or a contemporary surrogate for beauty, e.g. aesthetic value), the striking feature of Plato's dialogues is that he devotes as much time as he does to both topics and yet treats them oppositely. Art, mostly as represented by poetry, is closer to a greatest danger than any other phenomenon Plato speaks of, while beauty is close to a greatest good. Can there be such a thing as “Plato's aesthetics” that contains both positions?

To the literal-minded the very phrase “Plato's aesthetics” refers to an impossibility, given that this area of philosophy only came to be identified in the last few centuries. But even those who take aesthetics more broadly and permit the term may find something exploratory in Plato's treatments of art and beauty. He might be best described as seeking to discover the vocabulary and issues of aesthetics. For this reason Plato's readers will not find a single aesthetic theory in the dialogues. For the same reason they are uniquely situated to watch core concepts of aesthetics being defined: beauty, imitation, inspiration.

Beauty is an important part of our lives. Ugliness too. It is no surprise then that philosophers since antiquity have been interested in our experiences of and judgments about beauty and ugliness. They have tried to understand the nature of these experiences and judgments, and they have also wanted to know whether these experiences and judgments were legitimate. Both these projects took a sharpened form in the 20th century, when this part of our lives came under a sustained attack in both European and North American intellectual circles. Much of the discourse about beauty since the 18th century had deployed a notion of the “aesthetic”, and so that notion in particular came in for criticism. This disdain for the aesthetic may have roots in a broader cultural Puritanism, which fears the connection between the aesthetic and pleasure. Even to suggest, in the recent climate, that an artwork might be good because it is pleasurable, as opposed to cognitively, morally or politically beneficial, is to court derision. The 20th century was not kind to the notions of beauty or the aesthetic. Nevertheless, there were always some thinkers — philosophers, as well as others in the study of particular arts — who persisted in thinking seriously about beauty and the aesthetic. In the first part of this essay, we will look at the particularly rich account of judgments of beauty given to us by Immanuel Kant. The notion of a “judgment of taste” is central to Kant's account and also to virtually everyone working in traditional aesthetics; so we begin by examining Kant's characterization of the judgment of taste. In the second part, we look at the issues that 20th century thinkers raised. We end by drawing on Kant's account of the judgment of taste to consider whether the notion of the aesthetic is viable.

Our focus is on the metaphysical, ethical, evaluative, psychological, and social dimensions of art and the aesthetic. Particular emphasis is placed on philosophical problems raised by the creation, interpretation, experience, and criticism of music, film, literature, painting, and photography. An interdisciplinary spirit is encouraged, as regards the bearing on issues in aesthetics of both cognitive science and relevant subfields of philosophy, such as ethics, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind.