Saturday, July 23, 2016

The place of aesthetics in "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates"

This will be my 300th post!  It seems fitting that I devote this post to the unjustified low regard for aesthetics in the philosophical profession in the U.S.   I will do this by way of discussing the role of aesthetics in Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates by Robert Audi (principal author), a document that "Approved by the APA Board of Offers (Chair, Ruth Barcan Marcus), October 1981." and is posted on the American Philosophical Association site. (This is about as official a doctrine as we have concerning the established or, better, establishment view on the discipline of Philosophy.)  

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art are systematically repressed within the Philosophy world in the U.S.  "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates" is a key example.  Previously I have argued that aesthetics should be considered to be one of the core areas of Philosophy.  Please refer to it for an argument for my position based on the philosophy of John Dewey.  Although Wikipedia and many other sources list aesthetics as one of the traditional sub-categories of philosophy, it does not make the grade in "A Brief Guide."  There, under the main heading "Traditional Subfields of Philosophy" we find: Logic, Ethics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and the History of Philosophy.  Aesthetics is left out.  Instead, it is demoted to the category listed later in the document, "Special Fields of Philosophy." This category does include important fields such as Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Science.  However the demotion is real, which can be seen by the fact that Aesthetics comes next after "Subfields of Ethics" and when it is mentioned, it is only parenthetically after the Philosophy of Art.  Here is the entry.

  • "Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life."
Notice that aesthetics (in parentheses) is given credit for being one of the oldest subfields and yet is not considered one of the "Traditional" subfields.  Old but not traditional?  Notice that Aesthetics is reduced to Philosophy of Art.  Philosophy of Art is a great subfield which does indeed concern itself with the nature of art and the other items mentioned.  Note how aesthetics is subordinated to the Philosophy of Art so that even though "major questions in aesthetics" is mentioned it turns out that these questions only have to do with "artistic creations."  Natural beauty,, one of the traditional subjects of aesthetics, is only mentioned as something considered in relation tot he central concern of artistic creations.  Thus the writers of "A Brief Guide" appear to believe that "aesthetics" is just another word for "Philosophy of Art." Although it is true that most aestheticians do Philosophy of Art, Aesthetics is a distinct field of inquiry that includes not only the arts but also aesthetic phenomena in nature, design, human behavior, and everyday life.  In short, Aesthetics has been demoted because of its narrow identification with Philosophy of Art.  This would be like identification of Ethics as a sub-discipline with medical ethics.  

Let's carry out a thought experiment using standard dictionary definitions.   How would the list sub-disciplines go if the sub- discipline of aesthetics were identified with the first meaning of "aesthetics" that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. "pertaining to perception by the senses"?  Wouldn't a discipline that deals with all that pertains to perception of the senses be up there with epistemology, logic and ethics?  Of course that is not the only way to define aesthetics, and as in every other philosophical term, the actual meaning of "aesthetics" is debated by philosophers.  But I think that on most meanings Aesthetics should not be demoted. Sometimes, for example, aesthetics is defined as a domain of values, where beauty for example is the predominant positive value, this making aesthetics like Ethics in which the predominant positive value is moral good. Surely, that would put Aesthetics up Ethics in the first rung of sub-disciplines.   

Continuing our dictionary experiment, even if aesthetics were identified with the second entry in the OED  "Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art" this would be much broader than "A Brief Guide"s limitation of Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art.  For the word "beautiful" is commonly a stand-in for a broad range of aesthetic properties, which include graceful, elegant, sublime, pretty, harmonious, ugly, and so forth.  Indeed, the vocabulary of aesthetic terms may well be as large as the vocabulary of ethical or epistemological terms.  This is because aesthetics deals with a vast range of human concern.  Just consider how many choices we make every day and that have an aesthetic dimension, including choices made while cleaning one's room, writing a paper, taking a walk, talking with a friend.  Is there any dimension of human experience that does not have an aesthetic aspect?  I have discussed this in detail in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.   

An important source of the confusion that entered into "A Brief Guide" has to do with narrowness and broadness of certain conceptions of aesthetics and art.  If aesthetics were simply limited to the study of the concept of beauty, and not considered to include all other aesthetic concepts, then it would be rightly considered very narrow and limited.  Philosophy of Art might be considered much broader since it includes not only aesthetic evaluation of the arts but also the cognitive power of art, the creative process, the role of art in society, ontological issues regarding the arts, ethical issues in the arts, and the relationship between artistic and religious experience, among others. One could say that Philosophy of Art is whatever philosophers have to say when they address the arts and whatever is said in the arts (for example in art theory) that looks like philosophy or is fundamentally related to philosophical traditions (for example Greenberg deriving his criticism from Kant.)   This makes Philosophy of Art is very broad field indeed. The true story is that Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics simply overlap.  Aesthetics is not simply one small concern within the wider domain of Philosophy of Art since it includes all of the uses of terms in relation to perception that are evaluative:  even "looks nice" is an aesthetic term, as I have argued.

Another feature that serves to downplay the importance of Philosophy of Art/Aesthetics as a live discipline is that aspects of that field are separated off into other subfields.  So, under "Other subfields" the Brief Guide mentions "Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film" whereas, in reality, the philosophers who publish in these areas mainly attend the same conferences and publish in the same journals as other aestheticians/philosophers of art.  

I should mention that "Brief Guide" mentions aesthetics in a couple other places.  For example under "Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits" it mentions philosophy of literature as of value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art as important in understanding the arts (although failing to recognize that philosophy of literature is just a subdiscipline under the philosophy of art.)  It also observes that "advanced courses in the philosophy of art (aesthetics) are designed partly for students in art, music, and other related fields." However, again, and as valuable as these courses are, this reduces Aesthetics to the Philosophy of Art and marginalizes it in relation .   

The "Brief Guide" is not alone and represents a broader prejudice against aesthetics that can be found particularly in American Philosophy.  It might even be said that the denigration of Aesthetics goes back to attacks on the senses in Plato and Descartes and by Rationalist traditions in general. 

What should be done?  At the very least the "Brief Guide" should be rewritten to reinstate Aesthetics to its rightful place in Philosophy.    

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