Ph305 Aesthetics

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The Philosophy of Art
Convenor: Dr Stacie Friend
This module introduces students to some central issues in the Philosophy of Art. Our focus will be on whether the value of art is a special value, autonomous from other kinds of value. Along the way we consider such questions as: Are judgements of art subjective or objective, right or wrong? What is the relation between art and the aesthetic? How does the value of art as art relate to its economic, historical, social, educational or ethical value? Can we properly evaluate a work of art without knowing anything about who made it or the society in which it was produced? The topics to be covered include: judgements of taste; the definition of art; aesthetic experience; aesthetic concepts and properties; aesthetic empiricism; forgery; intention and interpretation; the cognitive value of art; and ethical criticism.
Lectures: The lectures for this module will be held in **, on Mondays from 2-3pm in the Autumn Term. The lecturer is Dr Stacie Friend (
Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held in **, on Mondays from 3-4pm in the Autumn Term. They will be led by the lecturer and by **.
Readings: Every week we focus on one reading in the seminar. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood it in advance. However, the lecturer will assume that you have read it, so it is essential that you do so to follow the lecture and participate in discussion. All of the seminar readings are available electronically (most through journals that can be accessed via the library website directly or through the links on Moodle). The ‘additional readings’ listed under each week’s topic will deepen your understanding and help you to get the most out of the module. You are especially advised to cover the additional reading for those topics on which you are planning to write. Most of these readings are also available electronically. Ask the lecturer if you would like any further reading suggestions for essay topics.
Essays (BA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,000 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the BA Handbook.

Prior to this assessed essay, you may also write up to two essays during the course, taken from the titles below, and receive feedback on them from your seminar leader. These can be useful practice for your eventual assessed essay. You should submit the first such essay by the first seminar after reading week, and the second by one week after the last seminar of term. [Notes: 1) You are always welcome to submit an essay earlier than these dates; 2) the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.]

Essay (MA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,500 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.
Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.

Recommended reading:
The following are good collections of papers in aesthetics and the philosophy of art:

  1. Cahn, Steven and Aaron Meskin (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell 2007)

  1. Lamarque, Peter and Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell 2004)

  2. Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell 2006) – presents two sides of many debates we discuss

The following provide useful surveys of many topics in aesthetics and the philosophy of art:

  1. Gaut, Berys and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 3rd edition (London: Routledge 2013) – earlier editions are also useful

  1. Levinson, Jerrold (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003)

Week 1. Hume on the Standard of Taste

What justifies our evaluations of artworks? How can we be right or wrong in matters of taste? These are the questions that David Hume addresses in his classic paper ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. We examine Hume’s arguments and their influence in the philosophy of art.

Seminar reading:

  1. David Hume, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’, in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, by David Hume, edited by Eugene F. Miller, 226-249 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1985); also available in numerous anthologies and online

Additional reading:

  1. James Shelley, ‘Hume and the Nature of Taste’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 29-38

  • Jerrold Levinson, ‘Hume's Standard of Taste: The Real Problem’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60 (2002): 227–238

  • Stephanie Ross, ‘Humean Critics: Real or Ideal?’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 48 (2008): 20–28

Week 2. Kant on Judgements of Taste

What if anything distinguishes aesthetic judgements, or ‘judgements of taste’, from other kinds of judgements? Are these judgements subjective or objective? Kant’s analysis of the special features of aesthetic judgements, and in particular his argument that such judgements rest on a particular form of ‘disinterested pleasure’, has had a significant influence on subsequent accounts of the value of art. We consider Kant’s analysis and the way it was interpreted (and misinterpreted) by later philosophers.

Seminar reading:

  • Immanuel Kant, the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ in The Critique of the Power of Judgement, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001); we will focus on §§1-9

Additional reading:

  • Marcia Eaton, ‘Kantian and Contextual Beauty’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999): 11-15

  • Chris Janaway, ‘Kant's Aesthetics and the “Empty Cognitive Stock”’, The Philosophical Quarterly 47 (1997): 459–476

  • Paul Guyer, ‘Disinterestedness and Desire in Kant’s Aesthetics’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1978): 449-460

Week 3. Definitions of Art

What is an artwork? Can anything be an artwork? What is the purpose of defining art? We look at a range of definitions of art, many of which respond to 20th-century developments in the arts that put pressure on the classic accounts of aesthetic value inspired by Hume and Kant.

Seminar reading:

  • Catharine Abell, ‘Art: What it Is and Why it Matters’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85 (2012): 671-691

Additional reading:

  • Arthur Danto, ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571-584

  • George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1947), 19-52; reprinted in many collections

  • Noël Carroll (ed.), Theories of Art Today (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2000) – papers on various approaches to defining art; see esp. James Anderson on aesthetic definitions

Essay question

  • Is the only successful definition of art an institutional definition?

Week 4. Aesthetic Value and Aesthetic Experience

Do we engage with art in a special way? Is there a distinctive aesthetic experience or aesthetic attitude? Inspired by Hume and Kant, many philosophers have argued that the aesthetic value of an artwork turns on the value of the special experience it affords, or that evaluating art requires adopting a special ‘distinterested’ attitude; but others have questioned the viability of these claims.

Seminar reading:

  • R. A. Sharpe, ‘The Empiricist Theory of Artistic Value’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58 (2000): 321-332

Additional reading:

  • Noël Carroll, ‘Art and the Domain of the Aesthetic’, British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (2000): 191-208

  • George Dickie, ‘The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude’, American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964): 56-65

  • Gary Iseminger, ‘The Aesthetic State of Mind’, in Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 98-110

Essay questions:

  • Is there an adequate account of ‘aesthetic experience’ or the ‘aesthetic attitude’?

  • Does the value of an artwork depend on the experience it affords?

Week 5. Aesthetic Concepts and Properties

In virtue of what is an artwork beautiful, or elegant, or garish, or sublime? Are these objective properties of an artwork, and if so, how do they depend on ‘non-aesthetic properties’ such as the distribution of colours on a canvas or the sequence of particular notes? Frank Sibley famously argued that although aesthetic properties are objective, they can only be perceived by experiencing the work itself; and there are no rules for determining which aesthetic properties depend on which non-aesthetic properties. We consider his argument and objections.

Seminar reading:

  • Frank Sibley, ‘Aesthetic Concepts’, Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 421-450 (especially Part I)

Additional reading:

  • Peter Kivy, ‘Aesthetics and Rationality’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1975): 51-57

  • Anna Christina Ribeiro, ‘Aesthetic Attributions: The Case of Poetry’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 293-302

  • Alan Goldman, ‘There are no Aesthetic Principles’ in Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 299-312

Essay question

  • Are there conditions or principles governing the application of aesthetic concepts?


Week 6. The Role of Context in Evaluation

Do we need to know anything about the history of an artwork to evaluate it? Do facts about the context of a work influence our perception of its aesthetic properties? Those who argue that evaluating an artwork requires having an aesthetic experience of a work or a perception of its aesthetic properties defend aesthetic empiricism. According to many empiricists, facts external to a work cannot influence its value, because they are not perceived or experienced. This week we consider a highly influential argument that knowledge of the historical context of an artwork is necessary for properly perceiving and thus evaluating art.

Seminar reading:

  • Kendall Walton, ‘Categories of Art’, Philosophical Review 79 (1970): 334-67 (for §III, you may read only sub-sections (b) and (f))

Additional reading:

  • David Davies, ‘Against Enlightened Empiricism’, in Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 22-34

  • Brian Laetz, ‘Kendall Walton’s “Categories of Art”: A Critical Commentary’, British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (2010): 287-306

  • Daniel O. Nathan, ‘Categories and Intentions’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 31 (1973): 539-541

Week 7. Indiscernibles

If a forgery of a painting is indiscernible from the original, can they differ in aesthetic value? Why does an ordinary object (a urinal, a spade) lack artistic or aesthetic value, but the same object exhibited by an artist have such value? Forgeries and conceptual art pose a further challenge to aesthetic empiricism, because their value seems to rest on facts about the work that cannot be perceived. We explore this challenge and its potential for expanding the notion of the ‘aesthetic’.

Seminar reading:

Additional reading:

  • Denis Dutton, ‘Artistic Crimes’, British Journal of Aesthetics 19 (1979): 302-13

  • Nelson Goodman, Chapter 3 of Languages of Art 2d edition (Indianapolis: Hackett 1976)

  • Elisabeth Schellekens, “Seeing is Believing” and “Believing is Seeing”’, Acta Analytica 20 (2005): 10-23

  • Dominic McIver Lopes, ‘The Myth of (Non-Aesthetic) Artistic Value’, Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2011): 518-536

Essay questions

  • How (if at all) does the history of an artwork influence its aesthetic value?

  • Is there a concept of aesthetic value that explains the difference in value between two indiscernible objects? Answer with reference either to forgery or to conceptual art or both.

Week 8. Intention and Interpretation

To what extent does the artist’s intention matter in interpreting an artwork? If the intention is not manifest in the work itself, how can it be relevant? A work’s context includes the actions and intentions of the artist in producing the work. The relevance of this aspect of context to understanding and evaluating art has been subject to heated dispute, particularly in discussions of literature. We consider various arguments for and against taking into account the artist’s intentions.

Seminar reading:

  • Nan Stalnaker, ‘Intention and Interpretation: Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54 (1996): 121-34

Additional reading:

  • W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, Monroe C., ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press 1954), 3-18; reprinted in numerous collections and online

  • Jerrold Levinson, ‘Intention and Interpretation in Literature,’ in The Pleasures of Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1996), 175-213; reprinted in several collections

  • Stephen Davies, ‘Author’s Intentions, Literary Interpretation, and Literary Value’, British Journal of Aesthetics 46 (2006): 223-247

Essay question

  • To what extent (if at all) do the actual intentions of the artist matter to the correct interpretation of an artwork?

Week 9. Cognitive Value

Do we learn from artworks? Does this matter to their aesthetic value? Traditionally aesthetic value has been distinguished sharply from a work’s cognitive value, where the cognitive value represents the various ways we might increase our knowledge or understanding from engaging with art. This week we look at arguments for and against the relevance of cognitive value to aesthetic value.

Seminar reading:

  • Jerome Stolnitz, ‘On the Cognitive Triviality of Art’, British Journal of Aesthetics 32 (1992): 191-200

Additional reading:

  • Eileen John, ‘Reading Fiction and Conceptual Knowledge: Philosophical Thought in Literary Context’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 221-348

  • Jenefer Robinson, ‘L’Éducation Sentimentale’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1995): 212-226

  • Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar, ‘Literature, Knowledge, and Value’, Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 111-124

Essay question

  • Can the cognitive value of an artwork contribute to its aesthetic value? If so, when does it do so?

Week 10. Ethical Criticism

Does the ethical perspective of an artwork matter to its aesthetic value? Is an immoral artwork necessarily worse as art? As with cognitive value, moral value has traditionally been distinguished sharply from aesthetic value. More recently, philosophers have argued that a work’s ethical character may influence its aesthetic value in a variety of ways. We consider several different approaches to the issue.

Seminar reading:

  • Anne W. Eaton, ‘Robust Immoralism’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 281-92

Additional reading:

  • Noël Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996): 223-238

  • Berys Gaut, ‘The Ethical Criticism of Art’, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press 1998), 182-203

  • James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics 38 (1998): 150-166

  • Mary Devereaux, ‘Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will’, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press 1998), 227-256

Essay question

  • Does the immoral perspective of an artwork always, never, or sometimes detract from its aesthetic value?

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