Aesthetics [section ed: W. Scott Clifton]
This thread will be for discussions related to the Aesthetics section of Introduction to Philosophy. See the full project summary.
How to participate:
We’re currently looking for:
- feedback on the section outline (by May 8th)
- authors for the six chapters in the section TOC
If you want to contribute to either (or both!) of these tasks, comment below to let us know you’re on board.
You can then find the relevant document(s) below and add your comments or other details.
I just wanted to post here that I’m finalizing the outline and it should be posted in the next couple of days.
Here is an outline for the section on aesthetics. I should also point out that my familiarity is with “analytic” aesthetics. If we want “continental” approaches to aesthetics, we will need to find someone with the appropriate expertise.
Chapter 1 What is Aesthetics?
This opening chapter will be relatively short, since it will describe the discipline of aesthetics and should motivate the discussion using fairly familiar examples. Many introductory aesthetics textbooks use examples from the fine arts, like sonnets, classical paintings, and great novels, but the relevant issues can be illustrated effectively through the use of more contemporary and pop-culture examples. In this chapter it should be made clear that, while aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty, most of the work done in the last three centuries has focused on aesthetic enjoyment of artworks. This is why the next four chapters deal exclusively with art, leaving the last chapter to discuss beauty and nature.
Chapter 2 What Makes Something an Artwork?
This chapter will consider the issue of defining art, and why such a project has been thought to be worthwhile. A discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions would be necessary in the introduction of this chapter, since most attempts to define “art” have been construed as the hunt to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for an object’s being an artwork. It’s also important to stress that this task is merely descriptive: the task is to determine what makes an object a work of art, not a good work of art.
There are roughly six approaches that will be covered:
- The Representational Theory
This theory says that artworks are, at a minimum, created (in a wide sense of the word) objects that are about something (and not necessarily something else, since some artworks might be intended to be about themselves). The oldest versions of this would be found in Plato and Aristotle, which construe artworks primarily as imitations. More recent versions take a more semantic approach and could be described in more or less detail, depending on how fine-grained we want this section to be.
- The Expression Theory
This theory says that artworks are, at a minimum, objects that express some truth about the artist—usually focused on emotional states of the artist. Two versions are the transmission theory and the solo theory. The transmission theory, advocated by Leo Tolstoy, maintains that expression of emotions is to be construed as transmitted to the audience member—that is, the audience member is intended to experience the same type of emotion—while the solo theory, advocated by R. G. Collingwood, maintains that expression occurs as a result of an intention to clarify emotion, without necessarily intending to transmit the emotion to the audience member.
This theory says that objects are to be classified as artworks based on their form. The most well-known version of this Clive Bell’s theory that says that artworks are distinguished from non-art objects by their possession of what he calls significant form.
- Aesthetic Attitude Theory
This theory says that artworks are distinguished from non-art by virtue of the attitude with which the audience member approaches the object. The most well-known advocates of this theory are Edward Bullough and Jerome Stolnitz.
- The Institutional Theory
This theory says that artworks are deemed to be artworks by the institution of the artworld. The most well-known proponent of this theory is George Dickie. The reasons for adopting this theory may also be effectively explained by discussing some of the work of Arthur Danto.
This theory holds that “art” is, by its very nature, impossible to define by the use of necessary and sufficient conditions. Maurice Mandelbaum argues that artworks bear family resemblances to one another, without sharing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Morris Weitz argues that ART is an open concept, since artists are always (appropriately) trying to push beyond the boundaries previously set, which implies that no boundaries could be permanently set in place.
Chapter 3 What Makes an Artwork Beautiful?
Two questions will be discussed in this chapter:
Question 1: Are artworks beautiful strictly by virtue of aesthetic or artistic properties—that is, properties located solely in or external to the work—or some combination of the two? An example of an aesthetic property would be the elegance of a painting which might be said to supervene on the colors and figures in the painting, while an example of an artistic property would be the religious symbolism of a child in the background, symbolizing Christ.
Question 2: What is the nature of aesthetic evaluations—in particular, can they be universally correct or not? Both Hume and Kant argued that aesthetic evaluations are subjective, yet universal—Hume through his use of the true judge and Kant through his notion of aesthetic judgments being constituted by the free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding.
Chapter 4 What is the Connection Between Artworks and Emotion?
This chapter would have some overlap with the expression theories of art found in Chapter 2. Two questions will be discussed in this chapter:
Question 1: How can artworks express the artist’s emotions? Discussing this question would likely involve Tolstoy and Collingwood, along with the work of some contemporary aestheticians.
Question 2: Can artworks be said to express emotions themselves—sad music, joyful poetry, etc.? This might also be a good opportunity to discuss the role of intention in art, especially in regards to the intentional fallacy—that is, the supposed error in trying to ascertain meaning from an artwork based on the intentions of the artist.
Chapter 5 What is the Connection Between Art and Morality?
Two questions would be investigated in this chapter:
Question 1: Can there be legitimate moral evaluation of artworks? Oscar Wilde famously argued that it cannot—art exists for its own sake and for no other purpose. But contemporary aestheticians have argued that there can be legitimate moral evaluations of artworks and, in some cases, these moral evaluations have genuine effects on aesthetic evaluations. A discussion of this contemporary work could proceed from here.
Question 2. Can artworks have genuine positive moral effects on audience members? There are two ways that artworks might be said be able to have genuine positive moral effects on audience members: First, we may learn some new information from art that we did not know and may not have been able to learn from other sources. Some contemporary aestheticians have argued that this is not likely to be the case—that there is no unique cognitive value connected to art. Second, we may learn new skills or improve on existing skills that would be relevant to morality from our engagement with art.
Possible third issue: We might also consider whether art can have genuine negative moral effects and, if so, whether this would represent a justification for banning certain works of art.
Chapter 6 What Makes Nature Beautiful?
This chapter tackles the question of what explains beauty we find in the natural world. In particular, does this beauty have its source exclusively in the objective features of nature or, partially at least, in the knowledge possessed by the observer?
All feedback is welcome.
- The Representational Theory
Hi all. I would like to also mention here that I would love to participate in this project. I also have some knowledge of “continental” developments in aesthetics (Benjamin, Adorno, Heidegger, Rancière). I would love to help out trying to integrate these aesthetic philosophies with your approach, @cliftows
@cliftows Thanks for this outline! My thoughts:
Currently, the approach is very outspoken in combining the study of aesthetics to the study of art, leaving only the last chapter for different approaches (and it then only focuses on beauty and nature). I don’t know if this is really the most helpful approach: whether aesthetic experience is most obviously or exemplarily the experience of art seems questionable. Whether aesthetic experience is an experience of beauty has been contested ever since the 60s.
If I may, my own approach would be to start precisely from aesthetic experience, rather than the definition of art, and an examination of the various and (possibly) contradictory ways of conceiving of said experience.
I think that this a more logical approach because, the etymological origin of the word ‘aesthetics’ aside, at some point (preferably at the beginning of the entire section), one has to explain what aesthetics is, as a discipline, what sets it apart from other philosophical disciplines. The idea that it studies a special way of relating to the world is far more able to capture the wide variety of approaches in aesthetics, than just the idea that it is a philosophical questioning of artworks. Of course, the fact that art has been historically the focal point of many aesthetic philosophies, is important, but the reason why this is so, seems to me to be precisely because art exemplarily enables forms of experience not so readily encountered elsewhere.
Secondly, if one starts from the idea that aesthetics studies a particular form of subjectivity, one is enabled to better draw cross-connections to other disciplines of philosophy. E.g., if one focuses heavily on art, one is quickly led to believe that the connections between ethics and aesthetics are all captured by questions of art and morality. But this actually leaves out of consideration a whole range of philosophies (of which Kant’s is only the most famous).
EDIT: misplaced an apostrophe, now fixed.
@cliftows I would be interested in working on this section if needed.
@wturgeon Hi Wendy–welcome aboard! I’m glad you’re interested in contributing. I’ve put your name down on our google spreadsheet as a potential author for aesthetics. Do you have any thoughts on the draft table of contents above?
@c.p.verdonschot @cliftows Going over my reply from last week, I get the feeling that I may have given the wrong impression. Let me clarify: I wasn’t trying to redo your work. It is just that, since you mentioned your lack of expertise with ‘continental’ approaches, I was trying to find a way to fit these into the project as well.
@c.p.verdonschot I didn’t get that impression–your feedback is helpful and appreciated. To be honest, I am just swamped with end of semester grading and haven’t had a chance yet to respond. You very well may be right that defining art is the wrong place to start–I don’t think much depends on the ordering of chapters, since we would be trying to make it possible for instructors to pick and choose specific chapters, rather than organizing everything into a cohesive whole. I have based the specific content covered in the outline on introductory texts to aesthetics and philosophy of art, so this explains why I have chosen the topics I have. It looks like the target length of each section is around 35 pp. so we will have to be selective and/or cursory in places.
@wturgeon Welcome aboard! We’ll be asking for volunteers for authors of chapters soon, so stay tuned!
@cliftows Ok! I understand (actually have lots of grading to do myself). I agree that not much should hinge on the ordering of the chapters. Still I would like to argue that we need a section dedicated specifically to aesthetic experience. Such a section could also serve as a nice way of introducing many authors from the history of philosophy: Baumgarten, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer. (Full disclosure: it also corresponds more to my own research interests)
@c.p.verdonschot I like this idea of including a section on aesthetic experience too. The two times I’ve taught aesthetics (numerous years past) I found that talking about aesthetic experience really broadened the topic to allow students to see not only some of the ways we can respond to art, but also to other aspects of life (nature, and more). This is in there, of course, in things like the “aesthetic attitude” theory of art, and in the discussion of beauty in nature, but I agree with c.p. here that it might make sense to start with aesthetic experience because then that can form a groundwork for aesthetic attitude and other things later.
It’s true that order may not be quite as important in a book where people can pick and choose subsections and reorder them as they wish, but at the same time some people just will take the aesthetics or ethics or other sections “as is” because they don’t have the time or the inclination to mess with doing anything else. So if we do see that something would make more sense in terms of ordering, it’s worthwhile considering it for those who just take the sections as they are.
This is just my two cents, though; I haven’t taught aesthetics since about 2003 or 2004, so I am not an expert here!
@clhendricksbc It might be worth considering including case studies or examples, real or fictional, to encourage dialogue about the theories and over all topics. The next couple of weeks are lost amid papers and finals but if needed, I would love to help over the summer.
I have not undertaken an academic study of aesthestics, so I can mostly contribute here as a reader and proofreader. That being said, I am an artist myself and focus my work mostly on music, prose and poetry.
Insofar as the current discussion is headed, I would agree that beginning the Aesthetics section of the textbook with an account of aesthetic experience would be optimal. There is ample scientific evidence about how biological tendencies influence the perception of beauty. For example, the shape of the body of a guitar or the classical Coca-Cola bottle are reminiscent of the female form, which has been argued in the past as motivation for their aesthetic value. These are basic examples, but priming the readers with instances from their everyday sensory experience should make them more receptive to the specifics of the theories presented later.
I do want to express my opinion on whether the entire focus of the Section should be on art, only to relegate beauty and nature to the end. My formal education is in physics and, believe it or not, aesthetics plays an essential role in the formulation of theory! Physical theories are mathematical models of nature whose acceptance into the body of established science hinges on two considerations: how well does the theory represent nature and how pleasing is it to work through its equations?
The central idea unifying all of physics today is that of symmetry. Unlike many of my peers who claim that this is ‘just a property of nature,’ I believe that the significance of symmetry pertains to the ease with which it facilitates the mathematical representation of nature. It is the inability to identify symmetries that informs what is incomplete about a theory.
For instance, Einstein’s crowning achievement is the Theory of General Relativity which, within the relevant community of people who have studied it, is usually regarded as ‘the most beautiful physical theory of all time.’ This is to be contrasted with quantum mechanics, which is so complicated that it has been called a ‘many-headed beast.’ Finally, the study of pure mathematics for its own sake is best considered as art in its own right, even though mathematics departments are considered as part of science faculties in most institutions.
Given the opportunity, I would love to elaborate on these ideas. It would also be a fantastic connection to the Philosophy of Science section of the textbook.