Aesthetics and Ethics

Aesthetics and Ethics

  • Aesthetics and Ethics are interdependent on each other
  • Steps to an Ecology of mind

Why do good? Why be moral?

  • Do good because its a good value for a virtuous person
  • Do good out of compassion and love for others
  • Do good because it is good for one’s self
  • Do good because world outside is none other than yourself. (Vedantic Perspective)


  • of Design
  • of Arts
  • of Performance Arts
  • of Rituals
  • of Traditions
  • of Narrative Arts
  • of Culture
  • of Architecture
  • of Actions
  • of Thoughts
  • of Senses
  • of Emotions
  • of Values
  • of Experience

Key Terms

  • Virtues
  • Values
  • Aesthetics
  • Arts
  • Morals
  • Ethics
  • Good ness
  • Art and Morals
  • Aesthetics and Ethics
  • Beauty and Goodness
  • Ist person and 2nd Person
  • Integral Theory
  • Ken Wilber
  • Self, Culture, Nature
  • I, We, It/Its
  • Immanual Kant
  • Wittgenstein
  • Sameness and Otherness
  • Difference
  • Boundaries and Networks
  • Hierarchy and Networks
  • Plato and Aristotle
  • Action Learning
  • Reflexive Action
  • Social Ethics
  • Communities of Goodness
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Inter-objectivity
  • Inter-subjectivity
  • Subject and Object
  • Phenomenology and Hermenutics
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Development and Relations
  • Internal vs External
  • Individual vs Collective
  • Culture, Society, and Ethics
  • Narrative Arts
  • Intentions and Actions
  • Sewa and Service
  • Altruism
  • Philosophy of Arts
  • Aesthetics of living culture
  • Traditions, Rituals, and Culture
  • Classical Education
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Dance, Music and Performance Arts
  • Universals
  • Transcendentals
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Nondual Vedanta (Advait Vedanta)
  • Steps to an Ecology of Mind
  • Value Theory
  • Virtue Theory
  • Art Criticism
  • Taste, Style, Manners
  • Relational
  • Aesthetics and Relatedness
  • Consciousness
  • Nondual Awareness
  • Interconnectedness

Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’S Critique of Moralization of Ethics

This study found a new idea of ethics to bridge the gap between morality and aesthetics. This new idea is called aesthetics morality. This study concluded as follows: 1) ethics as morality is in the form of teleology, deontology and virtue ethics; 2) ethics is a synthesis of aesthetics and morality; and 3) ethics is aesthetics in the form of care of the self. 

Ethics as Style:
Wittgenstein’s Aesthetic Ethics and Ethical Aesthetics

An inquiry into Wittgenstein’s ethics and aesthetics has to start with the following questions: Can an aesthetics and/or ethics be extracted from his philosophical texts at all? If yes, what kind of aesthetics and/or ethics does Wittgenstein offer beyond his well-known aphoristic comments on the subject? Finally, how can we understand the meaning of his claim that ‘‘ethics and aesthetics are one’’? This article responds to the above questions by presenting an account of Wittgenstein’s ethical aesthetics and aesthetic ethics, elucidating both through the prism of his notion of style as ‘‘general necessity seen sub specie eterni.’’ It explains how logical necessity implodes within the limits of propositional language to open onto the realm of style, within which ethical necessity is to be understood in terms of aesthetic life-form and aesthetic expression is to be understood in terms of ethical enactment.

Es ist klar, daß sich die Ethik nicht aussprechen läßt. Die Ethik ist transzendental.
(Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.)

[It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are one.)]
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection

This book brings together a number of new essays in an area of growing concern, namely the intersection or overlap of aesthetics and ethics. Recent developments aside, for the past thirty years or so in Anglo-American philosophy, aesthetics and ethics have been pursued in relative isolation, with aesthetics being generally regarded as the poorer, if flashier, cousin. The attention aestheticians have recently given to moral aspects of art and art criticism, and that ethicists have recently paid to aesthetic aspects of moral life and moral evaluation, give hope of ending this rather artificial isolation, though without necessarily forcing us to accede in Wittgenstein’s gnomic dictum that “ethics and aesthetics are one.”

The intersection of aesthetics and ethics can be understood to comprise three spheres of inquiry. The first is that of problems or presuppositions common to aesthetics and ethics, the two traditional branches of value theory. The second is that of ethical issues in aesthetics, or in the practice of art. And the third sphere is that of aesthetic issues in ethics, theoretical and applied.

As it turns out, the concerns of the present collection do not span the full intersection of aesthetics and ethics as just explained. For reasons of both unity and manageability, the decision was made to foreground aesthetics in the present venture. The result is that the essays fall under the first and second, but not the third ways of understanding the intersection of the two fields.

2 – Three versions of objectivity: aesthetic, moral, and scientific

How does the objective validity of aesthetic judgments compare with the objective validity of moral judgments and scientific beliefs? There are two traditional answers. According to one, aesthetic and moral appraisals both utterly lack the cognitive authority of scientific inquiry, since neither kind of appraiser has access to a fact independent of her own judgments and neither is in a position to claim that all who are adequately qualified would share her judgment. For example, emotivists deprive both aesthetic and moral judgments of both kinds of objectivity. According to the other tradition, well-formed aesthetic and moral judgments have the same cognitive authority as wellformed scientific beliefs, because in all three realms the judgment maker is often in a position to assert a truth independent of her judgments, in a claim to which all adequately qualified inquirers would assent. For example, Kant puts the three realms on a par in both ways.

Each of these traditions has distinctive liabilities, which jointly suggest the need to explore a third alternative. The debunking tradition, depriving both aesthetic and moral judgments of all the authority of science, is hard to reconcile with the pervasive aspirations to truth and interests in impersonal argument of apparently rational people engaged in moral and aesthetic judgment. On the other hand, the claims to universality in the elevating tradition often seem wishful thinking.

Elsewhere, I have defended a view of morality and science that rejects the association in both traditions of rational access to appraiser-independent truth with epistemic universality.

5 – Art, narrative, and moral understanding

With much art, we are naturally inclined to speak of it in moral terms. Especially when considering things like novels, short stories, epic poems, plays, and movies, we seem to fall effortlessly into talking about them in terms of ethical significance – in terms of whether or which characters are virtuous or vicious, and about whether the work itself is moral or immoral, and perhaps whether it is sexist or racist. Undoubtedly, poststructuralists will choke on my use of the phrase “naturally inclined,” just because they do not believe that humans are naturally inclined toward anything. But that general premise is as needlessly strong a presupposition as it is patently false. And, furthermore, I hope to show that my talk of natural inclinations is hardly misplaced here, for we are prone to respond to the types of works in question in the language of moral assessment exactly because of the kinds of things they are.

Moreover, we do not merely make moral assessments of artworks as a whole and characters in particular; it is also the case that these moral assessments are variable. That is, we find some artworks to be morally good, while some others are not; some are exemplary, while some others are vicious and perhaps even pernicious; and finally other works may not appear to call for either moral approbation or opprobrium. So, though we very frequently do advance moral assessments of artworks, it is important to stress that we have a gamut of possible evaluative judgments at our disposal: from the morally good to the bad to the ugly, to the morally indifferent and the irrelvant.

Problems at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

The Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

Ever since the publication of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the concept of taste has been severed from its moral sense and reduced to a merely aesthetic one.1 Since then two trends have predominated in moral philosophy. The first is a rationalist view of ethics, which proposes the need to subsume particular actions under universal laws. Deontological and utilitarian theories both have this paradigm in common. The second is the refraction of this position, which marginalizes any discussion of moral feeling as a psychological question of emotivism or subjectivism.2 This trend of positivism dismisses feelings as mere emotive states, questions of psychology, subjective, and therefore not binding.

In order to recapture the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience, one needs a view of aesthetics that is not limited to reflections on the beautiful and sublime in nature or art and that is not reducible to an allegiance to taste and manners; and one needs a continuity principle that enables reflection on morality to be true to experience. Two process philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey, present a metaphysics of experience which enriches ethics by illustrating the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience. Where the traditions outlined above view reason as the pivotal faculty in navigating the moral landscape, process philosophy emphasizes the aesthetic categories of feeling and imagination as operative in moral experience.

Those skeptical of “aestheticizing morality” often invoke the show-stopping reference to the Nazi Regime, one which consciously and politically recruited aesthetic ideals toward the crystallization of immorality.3 This is the Reductio ad Hitlerum to which the title refers. Fascism and Nazism in particular habituated a marriage between politics and aesthetics, and took up the goal of making politics a triumphant and beautiful spectacle.4 Art, music, and aesthetic symbols were recruited as instruments toward fulfilling this goal.5 Nazi Germany held “countless historical pageants, Volk festivals, military parades, propaganda films, art exhibitions and [erected] grandiose buildings”6 in order to exemplify “the fascist desire to invent mythic imperial pasts and futures,”7 while stirring the passions of the people for its war efforts. The Nazis denounced any allegiance to liberal political texts such as the Versailles Treaty “in favor of decisive political action based on fatal aesthetic criteria — beautiful vs. ugly, healthy vs. degenerate, German vs. Jew.”8 It is warranted to invoke this as the problem for those who “aestheticize” morality. The Nazi problematic, illustrated by an analysis of two films surrounding the immorality of the Nazi Regime, James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) and István Szabó’s Taking Sides (2001) illuminates the limitations and failures of the tendency to “aestheticize” morality. These films help show the nuances that reside at this tense intersection between aesthetics and ethics. However, tension between aesthetics and ethics, as depicted by the two films, dissolves once one’s understanding of aesthetics ceases to be reductive and narrow.

The aesthetic dimensions of moral experience in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey provide a basis for defining the continuity between ethics and aesthetics. For Whitehead, an aesthetic vision which builds on insights of his descriptive metaphysics enables us to see moral experience as aesthetic. For Dewey, the imagination works on the possibilities at hand in order to resolve morally problematic situations, and the grist for the imagination’s mill is experiential, perceptual, and aesthetic, not merely rational or conceptual. Thus, the broad use of aesthetics advocated herein enables us to draw moral distinctions in the face of Nazi atrocities instead of blindly serving the ideal of artistic creation. Nor does it reduce aesthetics to a fetish for manners. Rather, as including imagination, perception, taste, and emotion, an aesthetic orientation to ethics can encompass the limits posed by these films, and it can morally condemn the Nazi Regime and avoid the Hitler-reductio.

A.N. Whitehead at the Intersection

A sketch of Whitehead’s metaphysics is necessary in order to show how the foundations for moral action may be subsumed under the category of aesthetic experience. According to Whitehead’s systematic metaphysics, the world is a process of becoming. It is ultimately composed of self-creating “actual occasions.”9 The act of self-creation is the “concrescence” of an actual entity, “the final real things of which the world is made up.”10 Thus an “entity” describes an occasion or event in the mode of concrescense, the act of an occasion having prehended its environment. Events create themselves by virtue of their interdependence. The mode of relation each entity has toward others and toward its possibilities in general is “feeling.” “Prehensions” are the feelings which each entity has of its environment, which includes the entire universe, as each entity pulsates and vibrates throughout the cosmos in its process of self-creation.11 Since Whitehead holds that relations are more fundamental than substance, these prehensions constitute the actual entity. Where in traditional metaphysics, substance is primary and the relations among substances are described as secondary attributes, in Whitehead’s description entities are internally related, constituted by their relations. In this process metaphysics, relations are not secondary but primary in that they constitute the entities. When an actual entity prehends its environment, the entity constitutes itself and makes itself what it is.12Each entity serves as the subject of its own becoming and the “superject” of others, imparting itself to other entities in their becoming.13 Actual entities, in process metaphysics, are events, occasions in time, and always situated in a complex, interdependent environment of other entities. Thus, Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics is relational, not atomistic.

This speculative picture of reality lends itself to reflections on moral experience, including an account of Whitehead’s theory of value. In Process and Reality, Whitehead’s theory of value uses strong aesthetic language. He describes intensity of experience as “strength of beauty”: the degree of feeling in an occasion’s prehension of its environment. 14 Further, as John Cobb notes, “The chief ingredients [to beautiful experience] are emotional.”15 The actual entity prehends its environment, feeling its aesthetic surrounding in a chiefly emotional comportment. Because the locus of value is the intensity and harmony of an experience and the emotional sphere contributes chiefly to beautiful experience, emotion need not be corralled by reason, but channeled toward the achievement of beauty. Further, Whitehead shows that philosophers who treat feelings as merely private are mistakenly taking a phase of concrescence to be the whole of experience. For Whitehead, “there is no element in the universe capable of pure privacy.”16 The impossibility of pure privacy undermines the conceptual option of positivists and others who atomize and privatize feeling in order to dismiss its role in moral experiences as subjectivism or emotivism, both of which result in relativism.

Moral experience and aesthetic experience work dialectically: “The function of morality is to promote beauty in experience,”17 but emotions inform morality by adding to the value of experience. Sensation and emotion are not passively received, private reifications; instead, they seamlessly compose the environment we inhabit. Cobb contends that “the purely aesthetic impulse and the moral one exist in a tension” and that “the good aimed at for others is an aesthetic good — the strength of beauty of their experience.”18

Whitehead writes:

In our own relatively high grade human existence, this doctrine of feelings and their subject is best illustrated by our notion of moral responsibility. The subject is responsible for being what it is in virtue of its feelings. It is also derivatively responsible for the consequences of its existence because they flow from its feelings.19

That our existence flows from our feelings reveals the foundation of moral action on aesthetic, αἰσθηματικός, “sensuous” experience. When Whitehead contends that our moral actions flow from our feelings, he places a primacy upon our emotional comportment. The main contribution we make to others is our spirit or attitude.20This spirit is a comportment and temperament, an angle of vision. If our vision is broad and seeks to contribute to the strength of beauty of others’ experience, it is continuous with moral experience. Moral vision is attitudinal and acting according to calculation, deliberation, and reason, while poor in spirit, is not moral action. Whitehead posits a theory of value where our goal is to realize a strength of beauty in our immediate occasions of action. Taking a calculating attitude towards future consequences endangers this goal.21 It is misleading to think that one can calculate rationally toward that best action.22 Rather, such moral rationalism can justify activity that we feel is inhumane, evil, ugly, unjust, and wrong. It can sever means from ends and justify that which our sentiments would impeach.

Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics, by using humanistic and aesthetic language, includes a description of moral experience. Occasions of activity become harmonious with their environment by acting in the service of beauty. Actions emanate from feelings, and right action is not the function of rational deliberation, but of whole-part relations, of fitting the variety of detail and contrast under the unity of an aesthetic concrescence. Whitehead’s is a seductive account of reality, but nowhere in it do we find something like evil. Those skeptical of such an aesthetic description of moral experience may ask, “Where is the Holocaust in this picture?” Thus, below a recourse to two films about Nazism, aesthetics, and morality enables the skeptic to reexamine the continuity between ethics and aesthetics and consider a broader, less reductive, understanding of aesthetics itself. Before addressing this question, another account of how process philosophy maintains continuity between ethics and aesthetics is in order.

John Dewey at the Intersection

In order to outline Dewey’s description of the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience, a cursory illustration of the continuity at work in his metaphysics of experience and theory of inquiry is in order. Dewey described the generic traits of human experience as both precarious and stable.23 Indeterminate situations produce the conditions of instability.24 Subjecting a precarious situation to inquiry constitutes it as problematic, enabling an agent to identify possible means of resolving the situations within the constituent features of the uniquely given situation. Our employment of imaginative intelligence directs our activity in an effort to resolve the situation by rearranging the conditions of indeterminacy toward settlement and unification.25

In a manner similar to Whitehead, Dewey refers to the creative integration of the entire complex situation with the term “value.”26 One constituent in the activity of unifying the problematic situation is the end-in-view, which functions as a specific action coordinating all other factors involved in the institution and resolution of the problem. The value is the integration and unification of the situation. When the end-in-view functions successfully toward the integration of the situation, the resultant unification is a “consummatory phase of experience.”27 Dewey wrote, “Values are naturalistically interpreted as intrinsic qualities of events in their consummatory reference.”28 Their naturalistic interpretation renders the experience of value and the process of valuation continuous with other natural processes. That is, the ends-in-view, whether or not these are moral ideals, do not exist antecedent to inquiry into the complex, historical, and uniquely given situation, as the rationalists would have it. The general traits of moral experience are found within aesthetic experience — dispelling the need dichotomize experience into the cognitive and the emotional — because values are qualities of events.

The ability to examine the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience depends on the way Dewey defines an aesthetically unified and integrated experience as consummatory. The consummation refers to the experience of the unification of meaning of all of the phases of a complex experience.29 Thus, the aesthetic experience gives a holistic meaning to the precariousness of its parts. The value of an experience, including moral value, refers, as in Whitehead’s description, to whole-part relations and the unification of various elements therein.

Art is the skill of giving each phase its meaning in light of the whole. Art unifies each function of the experience, giving reflection, action, desire, and imagination an integrated relation both to each other and to the possibility of meaningful resolution.30 Thus, Dewey refuses to parcel out a separate faculty at work in isolation in any meaningful experience, whether that is reason in cognition or emotion in sympathetic attention to a friend. The consummatory experience is one in which we employ imaginative intelligence in appropriating aesthetic, felt elements of experience above and beyond their immediacy and one in which the instability of their immediacy is seen imaginatively as a possibility toward its meaningful integration.31

Thus, artful conduct includes moral conduct, but in a way that both avoids the need to import ideals transcendent to our experience and gives moral ideals their reality in the meaning that ensues in the consequences of their enactment. The features of artful conduct inherent in moral behavior concern the ability to see possibilities in the elements of precariousness, “to see the actual in light of the possible.”32 Where the rationalist searches for a universal concept to justify a given, isolated action whose justification could be known but not felt, the moral imagination enables the agent to envision in her environment the constituent possibilities in order to reconstruct the situation.

Both Whitehead and Dewey treat moral experience as continuous with the aesthetic experience of intensity, meaning, unification, and harmony found in the consummatory phase of experience, or in Whitehead’s terms, in concrescence. Both treat vision and imagination, not calculative rationality, as operative in navigating morally problematic situations. The general trend running through these process philosophies that maintains continuity between ethics and aesthetics concerns whole-part relations. The individual in morally charged situations must harmonize her particular conduct to the whole of her environment broadly construed. She must imaginatively find the proper fit of her conduct with her greater cultural context. If she succeeds, she harmonizes her experience and the part coheres with the whole. Value, harmony, and stability ensue. Whitehead and Dewey describe our moral experience at a sufficient level of abstraction, one which could include the hosting of a dinner party or the conducting of an orchestra. Each part must cohere with the whole — harmony is the motivating ideal.

Much like Whitehead, Dewey gives us a processive account of reality which seems to cohere with personal experience; however, Dewey’s description of the pattern of inquiry has been accused of being so broad and vague that the Nazi resolution of the Jewish problem could be described according to it..33 The Germans under Hitler constituted their situation during the Great Depression as problematic. Their economy was in shambles, and their national pride was wounded. They found within their situation the constitutive elements, marginally-German, supposed conspirators and enemies of all sorts, to employ in resolving their situation. They achieved a sort of integration of their experience and a distorted sort of harmony in armament and invasion to reincorporate native Germans outside of their truncated borders. They consciously recruited aesthetic ideals and played on the national emotions of soil and blood. Thus, according to the Hitler-reductio, to condemn morally their actions with the language of Dewey or Whitehead is no easy task. The reductio causes moral philosophers to long for universality in any of its rationalist iterations.

The British Problem at the Intersection: The Remains of the Day

The philosophical depiction of aesthetic experience, of which moral dimensions compose a part, is problematic if individuals acting under aesthetic norms, guided by manners and in service of harmonizing part-whole relations, engage in outright immorality or shy away from moral duty in the face of evil. This is the “British” problem because to highlight it, we must attend to the British characters in The Remains of the Day. While much has been written on the film (and the Ishiguro novel upon which it is based), about the role of class and the symbolic nature of British imperial politics, the film also serves as an excellent test case for the continuity between aesthetics and ethics.34 The setting of The Remains of the Day, the aristocratic estate of Darlington Hall in rural England, announces an aesthetic emphasis on beauty and order which persists throughout the film. Most of the action in the film occurs in the pre-war 1930s, but the film flashes forward to the post-war 1950s to show “present” character interactions. The central characters are an emotionally-repressed butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), his superior and owner of the estate in the 1930s, Lord Darlington (James Fox), and his fellow caretaker of the estate, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). The problematic relationship between aesthetic orientation and morality comes into view by focusing on Lord Darlington’s demeanor throughout the events of the 1930s, and Mr. Stevens’s comportment to the politically and morally problematic events that unfold at Darlington Hall.

Lord Darlington had a friend in Germany against whom he fought in the First World War, with whom he intended to sit down and have a drink after the war. But this never happened, as the German friend, ruined by the inflation that ensued in the post-Versailles Weimar Republic, took his own life. Lord Darlington exclaims to Mr. Stevens, “The Versailles Treaty made a liar out of me.” Darlington laments that the conditions of the treaty, (debt reparations, guilt clause) were too harsh: “Not how you treat a defeated foe,” as Darlington puts it. With this as his proximate motivation, Lord Darlington uses his influence to broker the policy of appeasementtoward Nazi Germany. It appears that Lord Darlington puts manners before moral duty. He hosts the delegates from Germany, France, and the United States at his home, and they dine dressed in black tie, served by the army of under-butlers commanded by Mr. Stevens.

One is tempted to view Lord Darlington’s behavior as kind, if not for other telling incidents. He temporarily agrees to employ two Jewish refugees at his estate, and it is made clear to the viewer that he understands the dangers they faced in Germany and that his home is serving as a sanctuary. However, after reading the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Lord Darlington orders that two German, Jewish maids should be discharged, as he considers their employment inappropriate for his German guests. Mr. Stevens carries out the order without reflection, while Miss Kenton threatens to resign in protest, but fails to follow through out of self-admitted weakness.35 Thus, Darlington knew of the Nazi policies in Germany, understood the potential plight of the maids, but fired them anyway in service of behavior “appropriate” for his German guests.

Darlington’s elevation of manners above duty reappears as he cannot even tell his godson (Hugh Grant), whose father has died and who is soon to be married, about the birds and the bees. He asks Mr. Stevens, his butler, to do it for him. Darlington seems unwilling to confront the issue of sexuality as it offends his Victorian manners and sensibilities. Thus, manners, while they can be seen as the outward display of inner character, here get in the way of the more difficult, unmannerly, and inappropriate conduct commanded in the face of negotiation with the Germans, the employment of the Jewish maids, and the acceptance of surrogate fatherly duties.

Mr. Stevens’s motivations are more opaque to the audience. He is so univocally driven to serve and fulfill his duty to Lord Darlington, that he almost fails to portray any moral subjectivity.36 But as the head butler, his service is also for the aesthetic ideals of orderliness and cleanliness. The prospect of a dustpan being left on the landing frightens him, such that he rushes to retrieve it before his employer notices his shortcoming. Mr. Stevens’s single-minded focus is best displayed when his own father, also an employee, is dying. Stevens attends to the dinner of the foreign delegates without pain or pause, while his own father lies on his death bed. His relationship with Miss Kenton, central to the development of his character, reveals his coldness, emotional repression, and narrowly driven service toward aesthetic ends. Miss Kenton first extends kindness to Mr. Stevens by putting flowers in his office, but he asks that they be removed so as not to distract him. She falls in love with Mr. Stevens and ends up in tears when she tries to break through his emotional wall and communicate her love to him. But he ignores her and asks to be excused to attend to his duties. Before her eventual departure and engagement to another man, she insults Stevens out of manifest distress that he has never expressed any emotional interest in her, but he still remains unmoved. After his reunion with her in the 1950s, Stevens departs for Darlington Hall in a deluge of rain. Kenton cries, but Stevens, still fails to demonstrate any feeling and only raises his hat out of politeness. While Stevens’s class-based subordination could explain his failure to fulfill his duty to his father, his coldness to Miss Kenton illustrates that he was a cold rationalist in service of aesthetics — thinly defined aesthetics.

Reflecting on Mr. Stevens’s relationship to Miss Kenton reveals two sides of the problem at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. First, because he serves only the aesthetic ideals of order, beauty, and cleanliness, he does a disservice to the human and intersubjective dimensions of moral experience. He is polite but inattentive and stoic in the face of obvious human suffering, from the firing of the Jewish maids, to the death of his father, to the jilted and regretful Miss Kenton. Does this pose a problem for the continuity between aesthetics and ethics? Stevens serves beauty at the cost of moral duty but also interpersonal sympathy. Since an emotional angle of vision is the necessary condition for attending to moral circumstances, his aesthetic orientation is too narrow. While he has an aesthetic ideal as his motive, he has a rational methodology to achieve it. He acts in each situation as if subsuming his particular action under the universal conceptual criteria of serving beauty and order. He does not allow his actions to flow from his feelings as Whitehead would prescribe. His contribution to others is his spirit, but this is a cold, deliberate, and rational spirit. Thus, with Mr. Stevens as a test case, a conception of aesthetic experience needs to be broad enough to include emotional comportment. Failing to do so through operating in service of a narrow ideal of beauty reveals an impoverished sense of aesthetics which results in immorality.

American Congressman, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve) of The Remains of the Dayserves as a pivot to the American problem at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics discussed at length below. Laughed at as nouveau riche by the British delegates, Lewis attends the conference with the intent of resisting the policy of appeasement. Because he fails to recruit the French delegate, Dupont d’Ivry (Michael Lonsdale), to his side (D’Ivry is busy attending to his sore feet), Mr. Lewis resorts to making an impolite toast at the black tie dinner. He argues in favor of the Realpolitik of professionals, rather than that of “honorable amateurs,” which is his epithet for the noblemen in his company and the Lord who is his host. In his toast “to the professionals” he embodies the moral high ground against the Nazis and the unmannerly and barefooted behavior of a stereotypical American on aristocratic soil; thus he hammers in the wedge that separates manners from morals. Apparently, Americans stand up for right against wrong even at the expense of politeness and pretty conduct. Lewis is a representative character for those skeptical of continuity between aesthetics and ethics. He knows that aesthetic ideals, when reducible to the appreciation of good taste and mannerly behavior, can dull moral distinctions. Yet he fails to unify the precariousness of his situation in a manner which Whitehead or Dewey describe.

The American Problem at the Intersection: Taking Sides

Taking Sides tells the story of Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler, (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the most respected German conductors of the 20th century, who chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime. After Germany’s defeat, he fell victim to a ruthless investigation by the Allies. The major in charge of the investigation is a stereotypically uncultured American, Major Steven Arnold (Harvey Keitel), who works in the insurance business. Arnold tries to uncover how complicit Furtwängler was. Furtwängler was appointed to the Privy Council, he was Hitler’s favorite conductor, and Goebbels and Goering honored him. However, he never joined the Nazi party, he helped numerous Jews escape, and several witnesses testify that he tried to protect Jewish musicians under his direction.

The audience is left to judge Furtwängler morally. On the one hand, Arnold has the moral high ground. The Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust, and the Allied victory ended it. Justice awaits the guilty. But Major Arnold is no Congressman Lewis, who has the outward appearance of a British Peer but falls short of their mannerly conduct only by degree. Arnold is a bullying interrogator, somewhere between the caricature of an ugly American and a down-to-earth pragmatist who thinks musical genius is no excuse for collusion with Nazism, and he is willing to employ an overbearing rudeness to expose this. For Arnold, the question is all about strength of will, and he deems Furtwängler weak. However, Arnold seems to misunderstand most of Furtwängler’s replies to his questions, and at times, his interrogation seems like self-righteous taunting and badgering. The viewer is left wondering whether the distressed conductor or the clinched-fist interrogator is acting more like a Nazi.

In one telling exchange, Furtwängler claims that art has mystical powers, which nurture man’s spiritual needs. He confesses to being extremely naïve. While having maintained the absolute separation of art and politics, he devoted his life to music because he thought through music he could do something practical: to maintain liberty, humanity, and justice. Arnold replies with sarcastic disdain, “Gee, that’s a thing of beauty. […] But you used the word “naïve.” Are you saying you were wrong in maintaining the separation of art and politics?”37 Furtwängler replies that he believed art and politics should be separated, but that they were not kept separate by the Nazis, and he learned this at his own cost. Furtwängler is in an obvious bind here. He cannot hold the following propositions together without internal contradiction: (1) Art has mystical power which nurture’s man’s spiritual needs; (2) Art and politics should be kept separate; (3) Art can maintain liberty, justice and humanity; (4) Art was not kept separate from politics during Nazi rule in Germany, and this was a bad thing. If art nurtures man’s spiritual needs, but art must be kept separate from politics, are man’s spiritual needs distinct from questions of community and well-functioning societies? Put otherwise, can music perform its practical function of maintaining justice, while being separate from politics? It would not seem so.

In what follows this interrogation, Arnold accuses Furtwängler of weakness, of selling out to the Nazis for ordinary petty reasons of fear, jealousy of other conductors, and selfishness. Arnold’s two subordinates are offended by his demeanor and his denigration of a national artistic genius and hero. His assistant eventually refuses to participate. She claims that Arnold is embodying the demeanor of the S.S., which she witnessed firsthand. But Arnold shows her a film of corpses being bulldozed into mass graves, and he tells her that Furtwängler’s friends did this, and by virtue of the fact that Furtwängler actually helped some Jews escape, he knew what they were doing.

The moment of supposed revelation for the viewers of the film comes by way of archival footage, in which Furtwängler is shown shaking hands with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels after a concert. Furtwängler’s face reveals the complexity of emotions at work — placidness, fear, and contempt. Furtwängler wipes his hand on his leg, revealing his disdain for his patron, but remains reserved and inoffensive. At once the viewer feels he is redeemed, because his true feelings for Goebbels and the Nazi project are revealed, but Furtwängler’s weakness is evident, as Arnold would have pointed out. Ultimately Furtwängler served the harmonious sensibility of artistic creation. Indeed, throughout the film the German admiration of him is severe, especially when contrasted to Arnold’s unimpressed frankness with him. The German temperament and faithfulness to aesthetic appreciation is manifest in a scene where the German audience stands in the rain, listening to Furtwängler conduct a symphony. To leave would offend, and service to the aesthetic ideals cannot give way to pragmatic considerations — how “American” that would be! One imagines Arnold thinking “what insensible dolt stands in the rain to listen to music?” Perhaps Congressman Lewis’s willingness to offend at the black tie dinner can be seen as a middle ground between Arnold’s bullying and Furtwängler’s and Darlington’s inverted values. However, this might only translate conduct into class, hiding the one true moral question beneath another layer of social convention. Arnold would insist that knowing where your salad fork belongs may not prevent you from colluding with murderers.

The Continuity between Ethics and Aesthetics

For both Whitehead and Dewey there are no universal moral situations. Our occasions of experience are always contextual and specific, never occurring in vacuous actuality. But this calls for a more general approach to descriptive ethics, not a more particularized prescription of universal moral laws. Both philosophers begin with a description of the general traits of experience and each uses highly aesthetic language. Each treats imagination and vision, not rationality, as operative in navigating morally problematic situations. Whitehead, by making feeling a metaphysical category, gives emotion a primary role; Dewey, in collapsing the gap between scientific, practical, and moral inquiries, gives imaginative intelligence primacy.

Neither of our two films presents the ideal character, with an emotional comportment and an intensity of experience able to serve as the causally efficacious and morally demanding superject in its environment. Nor do they offer a character of superior imaginative intelligence who finds and applies the elements of her problematic situation as means toward the valuable integration of meaning. This is not a surprise. England appeased the Nazis; the Holocaust occurred and so did the very limited prosecution of the guilty by the Allies afterwards. Furthermore, ugly, but welcomed, Americans plodded onto European soil either on the model of Major Arnold, at worst, or on that of Congressman Lewis at best. (He eventually buys Darlington Hall and retains Mr. Stevens as his butler, but he installs a ping-pong table there, of all aesthetic affronts). Does the “American” problem recur in summer retreats to European museums and cafes? Americans plod, loud and entitled, over the artistic feats of the Continent, and their European hosts translate aesthetic missteps into moral offense.

Where did each character fall short, and what did their shortcomings reveal about the intersection of aesthetics and ethics? Lord Darlington employed his servants to erect a mannerly and orderly veneer between him and that which is ugly. However, he can be viewed as a tragic figure because his mild manners and sensitivity to common cultural (and aesthetic in the narrow sense) values with the Germans were used against him. He ended in disgrace as the news of his involvement in the appeasement was publicized by the press. But his heightened sense of manners disabled him from confronting the soil of moral problems as he did not want to get dirty — (that’s what the servants are for). The head butler, Stevens, was not the emotionally comported or spontaneously active character tacitly advocated for by Whiteheadian ethics, but the coldly rational and deliberative agent serving a narrow aesthetic end. Miss Kenton and Furtwängler demonstrated a weakness of will in the face of wrong-doing, and for that they are condemned, not by an aesthetic measure, but by a pragmatic one. Their beliefs were their propensities to act, and their inability to act revealed a weak belief in their moral ideals.38 But the American characters are not morally pure. As the victors, the

tools they had at their disposal to resolve their situations were ready at hand, and they too were constituted by their prehensions of their environment. Denigrating an artistic genius does not show the service of a moral ideal, but only the privileged position of Major Arnold of judging Furtwängler’s weakness from outside his context.

These films do illustrate the tension at work at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. While both films depict the limitations and failures of the tendency to “aestheticize” morality, they do not prove the need to import a falsely universal moral ideal antecedent to the experience of a particular problematic situation in order to judge right from wrong. Insofar as the tools needed to make these judgments are had in experience, they have been, accurately described by figures like Whitehead and Dewey, in aesthetic language. The Reductio ad Hitlerum only succeeds if the meaning of aesthetics is deflated and reduced to something much narrower than either Whitehead or Dewey intended, such as reflection on artistic creation. The broad use of aesthetics advocated here does not fail to draw moral distinctions in the face of Nazi atrocities while blindly serving the ideal of artistic beauty or mere manners. Rather, as including imagination and emotion, an aesthetic orientation to ethics encompasses the problems posed by the characters’ shortcomings, even if their moral shortcomings run parallel to their heightened aesthetic and misguided sensibilities.

  1. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London: Continuum, 2006), 31. Nöel Carroll makes the further claim that because of Kant’s aesthetic theory and its interpretation, twentieth century philosophers have neglected the ethical criticism of art. (Noël Carroll, “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research,” Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp 350). ↩︎
  2. Thomas Alexander, “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination: Beyond Putnam and Rorty toward a Postmodern Ethics,” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, (Summer 1993), 373. ↩︎
  3. For a complex examination of this problematic, see George Kateb, “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility,” Political Theory, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 5-37. ↩︎
  4. See Noël Carroll, “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research,” Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 350-387. Carroll highlights the problematic relationship between ethics and art criticism by examining the immorality and aesthetic value of The Triumph of the Will, among other artifacts. ↩︎
  5. Boaz Neumann, “The National Socialist Politics of Life,” New German Critique, No. 85, Special Issue on Intellectuals (Winter, 2002), p 120. ↩︎
  6. Paul Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism: The Case of Nazi Modernism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), 546. ↩︎
  7. Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism,” 547. ↩︎
  8. Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism,” 547. ↩︎
  9. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (London: The Free Press, 1978), 18. ↩︎
  10. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 18, 22. ↩︎
  11. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 19. ↩︎
  12. Harold B. Dunkel, “Creativity and Education,” Educational Theory, Volume XI, Number 4, (1961), 209. ↩︎
  13. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29. ↩︎
  14. John B. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value,” Accessed 2/27/2015. ↩︎
  15. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  16. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 212. ↩︎
  17. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  18. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  19. Process and Reality, 222. ↩︎
  20. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  21. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  22. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  23. Dewey, Later Works Vol. 1, Ed. Boydston, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990) 42-45. ↩︎
  24. Dewey, Logic The Theory of InquiryLW 12: 110. ↩︎
  25. Dewey, LW 12: 121. ↩︎
  26. James Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, (New York: Humanities Press, 1972), 132. ↩︎
  27. Dewey, LW 10: 143. ↩︎
  28. Dewey, LW 1: 9. ↩︎
  29. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 150. ↩︎
  30. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 151. ↩︎
  31. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 152. ↩︎
  32. Alexander, “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination,” 384. ↩︎
  33. Richard Posner*, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy*, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 45. Posner claims that pragmatism, via Darwinism, has nurtured philosophies including Nazism. ↩︎
  34. See, for example, Meera Tamaya, “Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day: The Empire Strikes Back,” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (spring, 1992), pp. 45-56. Tanaya focuses on the relationship between Darlington and Stevens as one of colonizer and colonized, subject and object. ↩︎
  35. See Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981). ↩︎
  36. See McCombe, “The End of (Anthony) Eden: Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” and Midcentury Anglo-American Tensions,” 78. ↩︎
  37. See Page R. Laws, “Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood; India Ink by Tom Stoppard,” (review), Theatre Journal, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), pp. 107-108. Laws makes note of the fact that the Nazis used art in the service of politics. ↩︎
  38. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (1958-1966), Vol. 5, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds., (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 400. ↩︎


Alexander, Thomas. “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination: Beyond Putnam and Rorty toward a Postmodern Ethics.” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society. Vol. XXIX. No. 3. (Summer 1993).

Betts, Paul. “The New Fascination with Fascism: The Case of Nazi Modernism.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37. No. 4. (Oct., 2002).

Carroll, Noël. “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.” Ethics. Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 350-387.

Cobb, John B. Jr. “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.”

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 1, Ed. Boydston, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 10. Ed. Boydston, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 12. Ed. Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dunkel, Harold B. “Creativity and Education,” Educational Theory. Vol. XI. No. 4. (1961).

Field, Geoffrey G. Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. Truth and Method. London: Continuum, 2006.

Gouinlock, James. John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

Ivory, James. The Remains of the Day. Merchant Ivory Film, 1993.

Kateb, George. “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility.” Political Theory. Vol. 28. No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 5-37.

Neumann, Boaz. “The National Socialist Politics of Life.” New German Critique. No. 85. Special Issue on Intellectuals (Winter, 2002), pp. 107-130.

Peirce, Charles Sanders, (1958-1966) Collected papers. Vols. 1- 6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds., (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Posner, Richard. Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Szabó, István. Taking Sides. Paladin Production S.A., 2001.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. London: The Free Press, 1978.About the Author: 

Seth Vannatta earned his PhD in philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University, where he won the university award for research and scholarship in 2012. He studies the history of philosophy and American philosophy and is interested in philosophy’s relationship to other dimensions of culture including law, politics, education, and sport. He is the author of Conservationsim and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics(Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and editor and contributor to Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal (Open Court, 2012). He has published articles in The Pluralist, Contemporary Pragmatism, The European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, Education and Culture, and others.

Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics

By David George Haskell

A sense of beauty is a rigorous, perhaps even objective, foundation for environmental ethics. Our human aesthetic judgment integrates many strands of experience: intellect, emotion, bodily senses, and all we know from our interactions with others, both human and non-human others. From this integration, we understand the good.

Of course, an aesthetic sense is subject to the whims of desire, passing fads, and superficial impressions. So a well-grounded ethic depends for its rigor on a mature sense of aesthetics. By “mature,” I mean a sense of aesthetics that emerges from many years of lived relationship with a place and its community of life, both human and non-human. Such experience allows us to “unself” our judgment into the wider experience of the community. Our aesthetic and then our ethic will thus emerge not just from the limited confines of our own self, but from the knowledge that lives within the networks from which communities are made.

Once we—collectively—have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place, and, from there, I believe we can begin to form an objective—or near-objective—foundation for ethical discernment. Answers emerge from the community of life itself, filtered through human experience and consciousness.

What do I mean by that? Years of experience in a particular place will open us to the lives of other people and other species in that place, so our sense of aesthetics will incorporate their realities. Once we have that, we have a ground for moving forward and making ethical decisions that are actually deeply rooted in the physical, biological realities of a place, rather than coming only from abstractions of a seminar room or dogmas in a philosophy born in another ecosystem.

Aesthetics is often presented as something that’s very subjective, divorced from the reality of the world. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A sense of ecologic aesthetics comes from a very gritty, sensually rich experience that has its tendrils in the realities of a place.

None of this can answer the ethical nihilist who poses the question, “So, what? Ethics are vaporous illusions carved into the human nervous system by evolution.” But if some ground for ethics does exist in this universe, then a sense of aesthetics can, I think, help us find this ground by a process that fully acknowledges and embraces our existence as evolved members of ecological communities. This is a fully biological foundation for ethics.

On a practical level, if we try to answer questions about how to live in particular places without first listening to the realities and particularities of the place itself, our answers are going to be unmoored and will have terrible consequences. Understanding how to live ethically in a place is an extraordinarily complicated, important, and difficult challenge. Moving forward with answers that are not based on deep engagement with a place and its inhabitants is a recipe for disaster. So action in the world demands, first, a practice of listening.

Religious and philosophical traditions have known this for many millennia: contemplation and action go together, just as the inhale and the exhale go together. Monastic communities are deeply contemplative, but also have engaged in action in the world—whether that action is caring for other people in hospitals, or agricultural action, or caring for the sick. This history evinces the truth that we need open, contemplative spaces within our lives, especially lives of action. I think there’s a hunger for that kind of open space. Without it, we feel a desperation and a feeling that we’re up against the wall without a good way forward. Contemplative practices create spaces for new ideas, new connections to emerge. That sounds like a rather goal-oriented way of putting it, but I do think that one of the fruits of contemplation is an increased ability to come up with new ideas or to see old ideas in a new light.

In the environmental community, there are some instances of people making decisions about the fate of ecosystems when the decision-makers have never experienced the ecosystem at stake. When NGOs, governments, or businesses have decision-making structures that are divorced from the lived experience of a place, then the outcomes will most likely not be good for that place or the people in them. We need to bring lived experience of ecosystems back into the decision-making process.

Call: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age – British Society of Aesthetics Conference

Published: AUGUST 20, 2020

Call for Abstracts

British Society of Aesthetics: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age
27th and 28th May 2021
Cambridge, UK

Submission deadline: 31st December 2020

Submissions are invited for the upcoming conference British Society of Aesthetics: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age. The conference will take place on 27th and 28th May 2021 in Cambridge, UK.

The aim of this conference is to explore some developments in recent practice that raise new and interesting questions for the philosophy of art. Artists, working independently in different parts of the world, are creating new forms of technological interfaces and experimenting with the biological, the nano and the digital. At the heart of all their works is a deep ethos of balancing the aesthetic and the ethical in how we relate with others and our environment, whether in the same physical space or as distributed bodies. The spheres of the arts, sciences, and (in particular) technology overlap both to explore and to attempt to change the way in which we live in the world. These artistic practices raise questions about the interaction between aesthetics and ethics that go beyond those familiar to us in discussions over the past decade or so.

Abstracts of up to 1000 words should be submitted as an email attachment to Satinder Gill ( and Derek Matravers ( Please include the talk title, author’s name, affiliation and contact details in the body of email; and please write “BSA Conference Submission” in the subject line.  Abstracts should outline a talk lasting 25 minutes, on a topic related to the topic of the conference. The deadline for submissions is the end of 31st December 2020.

There will be no registration fee for the conference. UK-based contributing speakers will be encouraged to apply for the BSA Travel Stipend to cover travel and accommodation costs. The conference will adhere to BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme.

The conference website is For more information, please email Satinder Gill or Derek Matravers (emails above).

This conference is generously supported by the British Society of Aesthetics.

The relationship between aesthetics and ethics has long been the topic of scholarly debates, from Kant’s (1928[1790]) insistence that the experience of beauty involved disinterested contemplation and, subsequently, the separation of aesthetics from ethics, or Wittgenstein’s (1961[1889]) enigmatic proposition that ‘ethics and aesthetics are one’, to the numerous enquiries into the ethical aspects of art and art criticism or the aesthetic aspects of moral life and moral evaluation (e.g. Bourdieu 1984, Foucault 1985, 1986, Eco 1986, Eagleton 1990, Guattari 1995, Korsmeyer 1998, Levinson 2001, Rancière 2006, Osborne and Tanner 2007).
How has anthropology related to these debates? Thompson (2006[1973)], Bateson (2006[1973)], or Boone (1986), for example, in the tradition of a holistic anthropology, have analysed local concepts of beauty and illustrated the ways in which these concepts articulated with religious and moral values. Gell (1998), to give another example, through his notion of the artwork as an index, which enables the observer to make causal inferences about the artist’s intentions, has theoretically paved the way for inquiries into the morality of intentions. Furthermore, how can anthropology contribute to these debates, especially in light of its increasing interest in ethics (e.g. Lambek 2010, Faubion 2011, Robbins 2013, Keane 2013, 1014, Fassin and Lézé 2014, Laidlaw 2014)?

Participants have been invited to address the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in anthropology and to consider the following questions:
i) do the definitions of aesthetics and ethics currently in use in anthropology help or hinder us in our reflections on their relationship?
ii) when are the questions of aesthetics and ethics similar?
iii) what kind of theoretical framework is appropriate for reflecting on this relationship? (e.g. value theory; then the questions might be: how does aesthetic value relate to the notion of value generally? how does ethical value relate to the notion of value generally? are these types of value incompatible?)
iv) what kind of ethnographic topic is appropriate for reflecting on this relationship? (only those where there is an explicit expectation that aesthetic principles are guided by ethical considerations, such as Qur’anic art and Islamic fashion?)
v) should a third term, that is, politics, be also taken into consideration in order to better understand the relationship between aesthetics and ethics?

About this topic 

SummaryBroadly construed, Aesthetics and Ethics concerns the relationship between art and morality. Here we ask: Can artworks provide moral knowledge? Can artworks corrupt and instruct morally?  More narrowly construed, the category concerns the relationship between aesthetic and moral value. The chief question is this: Do moral flaws with works of art constitute aesthetics flaws? In addition, we can ask if aesthetic value is morally significant. This last issue has important implications for environmental ethics.
Key worksThe most important collection on the topic is Levinson 1998. The majority of the work on the topic is in essay form, but there are a few influential books. Gaut 2007 is an important, recent monograph. 
IntroductionsAlthough a bit out of date, Carroll 2000 provides an excellent overview of the area.  Gaut 2001 is also an excellent introduction.


Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.

Noël Carroll – 2000 – Ethics 110 (2):350-387.

Art and Ethics.

Berys Gaut – 2001 – In Berys Nigel Gaut & Dominic Lopes (eds.), 

The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. Routledge. pp. 341–352.

Art, Emotion and Ethics.

Berys Gaut – 2007 – Oxford University Press.

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection.

Jerrold Levinson (ed.) – 1998 – Cambridge University Press.


In recent years, American Studies have taken a turn toward the political. However, although poststructuralism and deconstruction have undermined numerous of the moral-philosophical dogmas of the Western metaphysical tradition, many of the political claims that the revisionist turn in American Studies has voiced still rest, if tacitly, on these moral and ethical assumptions. As the latter often collide with the theoretical axioms that inform these revisionist works, some resort to what one could call the “pathos of marginality” and rather vague concepts of “otherness.” Moreover, these political-ideological readings often completely blot out aesthetic aspects, as these are suspected to be carriers of implicit and hegemonic strategies of representation.

In the first part, this study analyzes what role “otherness” plays in the most influential moral-philosophical approaches to date – from Aristotle and the Neo-Aristotelians (Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum) via Kantianism and its deconstructors (Jean-François Lyotard, J. Hillis Miller) to the works of Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas – and sheds light on its highly problematic status in Western notions of justice. Moreover, on the background of these analyses it examines the role that aesthetics plays not only for, but within these approaches, with a special focus on what task literature is accorded to dramatize the clash of sameness and otherness.

Starting from a revised notion of the sublime, the second part “applies” the different approaches to four American novels: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and examines how far the moral-philosophical systems carry to elucidate these texts. What becomes clear is that none of these works can be captured in their complexity by either one moral philosophy or one political agenda, in that every literary “exemplification” of such theory inevitably falls prey to the treacherous dynamics of the example – a dynamics that inhabits literature and haunts ethics, and that defies literature’s instrumentalization by either ethics or ideologies.

Keywords: American Studies, Aesthetics, Ethics, the Sublime, the Other, Otherness, Immanuel Kant, Jean-François Lyotard, J. Hillis Miller, Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herman Melville, Billd Budd, Richard Wright, Native Son, N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn, Ecology.


List of Abbreviations for Reference Works


American Studies Today

Enter (And Leave): The Aesthetic

Difficult Neighbors: Ethics and Aesthetics

The Novels

I. The Kantian Legacy of Deconstruction

1. Kant – for Example

2. The Ethics of Reading and the End of History

2.1. Ce dangereux exemple…

2.2. De Man’s Demands

2.3. …close the gap!

2.4. Giving the Li(f)e to Miller’s Lie

3. Toward a Politics of the Sublime: Jean-François Lyotard

3.1. The Idea of the “Idea”

3.2. Lyotard Just Gaming?

3.3. The Sacrificial Sublime

II. The Return of Aristotle: Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum

4. Going Back Home: MacIntyre and the Greek Polis

4.1. The Price of Historicization

4.2. The Polis Rebuilt

4.3. Virtual Ethics and Virtuous Reading

4.4. Ethics, Practice, and the Narrative Unity of a Human Life

5. A Mind too Refined to be Touched by an Idea: Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian Liberalism

5.1. Aristotle and the Virtues

5.2. The Tragic Muse as Éducation Sentimentale

5.3. The End of Tragedy and The Limits of Identification

III. Approaching the Other: Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur

6. Oneself for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas

6.1. Facing The Other

6.2. Ethics, Politics, and Literature

6.3. The Other Sublime

7. Oneself as Another: Paul Ricoeur

7.1. Toward a Narrative Ethics

7.2. Narration and Alterity

7.3. A Tragic Encounter – Narrating the Other

IV. Toward an Ethics of Literature

8. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

8.1. How to Turn a Thing Into a Man, or: Categorical Imperative vs. Golden Rule

8.2. Sentimentalism as Aesthetic and Ethical Strategy

8.3. The Economy of Religion and Politics

8.4. Face/Off

9. Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor

9.1. Phronimos Goes To War

9.2. Literature, Responsibility, and Political Philosophy: Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricoeur

9.3. (Ef-)facing the Other – Melville’s Silences, Ethics, and War

9.4. Singular Madnesses, Maddening Singularities: Vere, Billy, and the “Hebrew Prophets”

10. Richard Wright: Native Son

10.1. Polis into Metropolis, or: How to Identify with a Rat

10.2. Whose Narrative Is It, Anyway?

10.3. The Racial Sublime

10.4.  Re(w)ri(gh)ting Native Son, Or: Who’s Afraid of Bigger Thomas?

11. N. Scott Momaday: House Made Of Dawn

11.1.  Polis into Pueblo, or: How to Identify with a Bear

11.2. “Evil Was”: Balance, Control, and the Ethics of Myth

11.3. To Kill or Not to Kill

11.4.  Excursus: Is there an other Other? Toward an Environmental Ethics



Index of Names

My Related Posts

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

On Aesthetics

On Beauty

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

On Classical Virtues

Indra’s Net: On Interconnectedness

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Arts and Moral Philosophy

Human Rights and Human Development

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics

The Social Significance of Drama and Narrative Arts

Key Sources of Reserach


Jeffory Dean

Aesthetics and ethics

Tanner, Michael

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection

Problems at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

Seth Vannatta (Morgan State University)


Diané Collinson

The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 25, Issue 3, SUMMER 1985, Pages 266–272, 01 March 1985

Aesthetics and Ethics in Gadamer, Levinas, and Romanticism: Problems of Phronesis and Techne

David P. Haney

PMLA Vol. 114, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethics and Literary Study (Jan., 1999), pp. 32-45 (14 pages) Published By: Modern Language Association 

The Marriage of Aesthetics and Ethics

Series: Critical Studies in German Idealism, Volume: 15

Editor: Stéphane Symons

Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’S Critique of Moralization of Ethics

October 2019

Project: Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’s Critique of Moralization of Ethics

Erwin Arellano Mallo

University of Southern Mindanao

“One and the Same? Ethics, Aesthetics, and Truth.” 

Eaglestone, Robert.

Poetics Today 25, no. 4 (2004): 595-608.

Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics

By David George Haskell

Aesthetics & Ethics: Otherness and Moral Imagination from Aristotle to Levinas and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn

Thomas Claviez

Aesthetics & Ethics: Otherness and Moral Imagination from Aristotle to Levinas and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn

(Heidelberg: Winter, 2008)

Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics

Aesthetics and Ethics

Aesthetics and Ethics  

Richard Eldridge

The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics

Edited by Jerrold Levinson

The Ethics of Aesthetics

Don Ritter Berlin, Germany

“Ethics and Aesthetics are One”: The Case of Zen Aesthetics

Bai, H. (1997).

Canadian Review of Art Education, 24(2), 37-52.

Ethics as Style:
Wittgenstein’s Aesthetic Ethics and Ethical Aesthetics

Kathrin Stengel

Independent Scholar, New York

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection


Aesthetics and Ethics have normally been studied separately.

Aesthetics belong to Beautiful and Ethics belong to Good in the Integral Theory.

  • Aesthetics – Arts – Beautiful
  • Ethics – Morals – Good




Jeffrey Dean

Because the poet traffics in mimesis, ungoverned by reason, appealing to the irrational part of the soul, this makes it right for us to proceed to lay hold of him and set him down as the counterpart of the painter, for he resembles him in that his creations are inferior in respect of reality, and the fact that his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul and not to the best part is another point of resemblance. And so we may at last say that we should be justified in not admitting him into a well-ordered state, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part, just as when in a state one puts bad men in power and turns the city over to them and ruins the better sort. Precisely in the same manner we shall say that the mimetic poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious currying favor with the senseless element that cannot distinguish the greater from the less, but calls the same thing now one, now the other. – Plato

I spoke of the novel as an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs our human variety and contradiction. – Lionel Trilling

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde

You know you’ve arrived when your likeness appears on The Simpsons or on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match, and while I don’t expect philosophers to show up on either of these shows any time soon (despite the notable publication of The Simpsons and Philosophy), for those interested in the intersection of aesthetics and ethics we have recently seen the next best thing: a survey article by Noel Carroll on art and ethical criticism in the journal Ethics. Of course, any arrival marks the end of an absence, and as Carroll points out in the opening paragraphs of his essay, the recent flood of work on the ethical criticism of art puts an end to a surprising dearth of work on the part of Anglo-American philosophers in this area. Surprising, not only because connections between ethics and aesthetics were central to much philosophy from Plato through the end of the eighteenth-century, but also because outside of Anglo-American academic philosophy, the ethical “interrogation” of art (and artists) has been steadily mounting for much of the twentieth-century. Precisely because it is the work that has seen most development in the last ten to fifteen years, and in order to help make this overview manageable, discussion here will be limited to what I see as the two most robust areas of renewed interest in Anglo-American philosophy of an “analytic” bent: research pertaining to the role of art and aesthetics in the development of moral imagination and understanding; and work on the relationship between moral and aesthetic values.

A great deal of this recent work in aesthetics has emphasized the connection between art and moral understanding, a connection long thought important, but as noted, largely neglected during the better part of the last two centuries. This neglect can be attributed to, among other things, zealous attempts to define and defend the intrinsic value of art, attempts which shun any whiff of an instrumentalism that sites the value of art in its didactic or ethical effects. But as contemporary critics of this approach often stress, the resulting aestheticism, the purpose of which was to save art from moralizing, is itself too often a form of reductive and blinkered formalism. The task some of those working in contemporary aesthetics have set themselves is to understand and characterize the relationship between art and ethics in a way that avoids the weaknesses of both instrumentalism and aestheticism.

In this endeavor aesthetics has been met halfway by ethics. Until fairly recently, the dominant strains in British and American philosophical ethics have been Utilitarian and Kantian. The central debates were over whether ethics should be characterized in deontological or consequentialist terms, with a shared focus on impartial principles designed to regulate self-interest for mutual advantage, and disagreements centered around the structure of moral intentions and obligations and the moral relevance of the consequences of actions.

But more recently there has been a renewed interest in what is commonly referred to as “virtue ethics”. In the tradition of Aristotle, virtue ethics focuses more on the long-term development of moral agency-including character, moral emotions, and the perception of salient details of particular moral contexts-than on finely tuned general principles intended to entail impartial outcomes in particular cases. The difference in approaches is sometimes cast as between an ethics of obligation vs. an ethics of character. This shift dovetails nicely with the recent efforts in aesthetics, since one element central to Aristotelian ethics is precisely what engagement with art has long been claimed to provide: a means to imaginative perception, feeling, and understanding Peter Lamarque provides one characterization of this trend, referring to the Wittgensteinian school of (literary value and) ethics (also represented by D.Z. Phillips and R.W. Beardsmore) as follows:

It is not the central task of ethics to formulate and apply general principles but rather to stress the particularity of moral situations and the idea that profound moral disagreements reside not in a difference of beliefs but in different ways of looking at the world. The argument is then brought to bear on literature with a parallel more or less explicitly drawn between a moral agent on the one hand and a competent reader on the other. The idea is that the moral agent and the reader both in effect confront complex moral situations with both called upon to adopt an imaginative perspective on those situations which should yield in the one case a moral judgement or appropriate action and in the other a moral insight or revised way of seeing. A competent reader might hope to learn from the literary work not by formulating a derived moral principle but by acquiring a new vision or perspective on the world.The list of recent and contemporary philosophers who stress the close connection between aesthetic and moral perception and understanding is long one, including among many others Wayne Booth, Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, Richard Eldridge, Susan Feagin, Peter Lamarque, Peter McCormick, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Frank Palmer, John Passmore, and Hilary Putnam. Most of the discussion by these authors focuses on narrative art, usually narrative fiction in the form of poetry, literature, drama and film. Also common to these accounts is their rejection of a central role for propositional knowledge vis-à-vis the moral relevance of art. Instead, it is claimed variously that art “shows” rather than “tells” us morally relevant features of the world, illuminating the importance of feeling, reflection and the perception of particulars in the moral evaluation of character and situation (esp. Murdoch, Nussbaum, Palmer, and Passmore), is especially well-suited to modifying our moral concepts (esp. Carroll, McCormick, and Putnam), and exercises the very imaginative capacities necessary for making sensitive moral judgments (esp. Booth, Currie, Feagin, and Lamarque). Each of these sorts of claim is intended to highlight ways in which the appreciation of art engages and refines capacities necessary for sound moral understanding and judgment, stressing that what is morally valuable about such art is inherently bound up with its aesthetic appreciation.

While most of the early work in this area tended to valorize the moral benefits of sensitive engagement with works of art, recent work has also stressed the potential dangers of imaginative commerce with art-particularly narrative art-in those cases where the work in question encourages or mandates imaginative identification with, or mental simulation of, morally deficient or pernicious points of view. Although little has been made of this as of yet, taking seriously the morally disruptive or destructive power of art (even while bearing in mind its virtues) may have significant consequences for one’s attitudes regarding censorship and arts education. That is, given the nature of the kinds of views developed and defended in current research, it becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the ethical benefits of imaginative engagement with art without acknowledging its potential dangers as well. I expect to see increased discussion of this issue in the coming years.

Given that recent efforts have centered on close connections between imaginative engagement with works of art and moral understanding, it is perhaps unsurprising that the other main focus of research and debate has been the relationship between aesthetic and moral value, and by extension, the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment. The debate here has centered on the question of whether the moral and aesthetic values of works of art are independent, or, alternatively, at least on occasion interdependent.

Consider the case of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette. Here, Sade offers a narrative which appears to endorse the notion that sexual torture is erotic and amusing. In this case, the “successful” understanding of the narrative (in the sense that we see things as the author would have us see them) would entail some distortion or perversion of our moral understanding, on the assumption that sexual torture is not, or at least should not be, either amusing or erotic, and that persons should not be treated merely as means to one’s own sadistic gratification. It may be said, then, that because Juliette prescribes a response to its subject matter that is ethically inappropriate, it is a morally flawed work.

The question then arises whether the fact that Juliette is morally flawed (because it endorses a morally defective perspective which prescribes a morally inappropriate response to its subject matter) in a manner that undermines its narrative intent (morally sensitive audiences should not respond in the manner prescribed by the work) means that it is thereby aesthetically flawed as well (and for that very same reason). The question is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. For, on the one hand, it seems intuitive to say when a work fails to merit a prescribed response, it has to that extent failed aesthetically. Thrillers that do not thrill, comedies that are not humorous, and tragedies that are not tragic fail in some respect, and that failure, given that it is internal to the nature and aims of the work, would appear to be an aesthetic one. Since Juliette fails in a respect internal to the aims of the work, it would also appear to be an aesthetically flawed in this regard. And the explanation for this failure is that the work is morally flawed. So the work is both aesthetically and morally flawed, and for the same reason.

On the other hand, however, a thriller that fails to thrill (say) is aesthetically flawed precisely because of its failure to thrill; why it fails to thrill would seem to be extraneous to the aesthetic issue, viz., that it fails. It may fail to thrill because the pacing is off; it may fail to thrill because the dialog is weak; or it may fail to thrill due to some moral defect, e.g., the putatively sympathetic protagonist is in fact morally repugnant, such that the audience doesn’t have sufficient sympathy with him or his plight to care about what happens to him or take a positive interest in the outcome of the storyline. In each case we have an aesthetic failure-a thriller that fails to thrill-with different explanations for this failure: pacing, dialog, moral misstep. In the latter case, it is mistaken to say that the thriller’s aesthetic defect (its failure to thrill) is “the same as” its moral defect (its prescription to sympathize with a repugnant character). Indeed, it would be mistaken to identify the failure to thrill with any of the explanations for that failure. Likewise, it is mistaken to identify the aesthetic defect in Juliette (its failure to warrant its prescribed response) with its moral defect (its endorsement of and invitation to share a morally corrupt perspective).

It is important to note that whether one supposes that moral and aesthetic values and judgments sometimes overlap, or steadfastly maintains their conceptual independence, there is one thing that most of those currently writing on aesthetics: works of art have multiple dimensions of value, including not only aesthetic and moral values, but historical, sociological, political, anthropological and other sorts of values as well. My own view (a view certainly shared and articulated by others, but not always made apparent in the literature) is that for the sake of clarity, the value matrices that converge in works of art ought to be referred to as artistic value (or “overall artistic value”). Artists are concerned with more than the expression of aesthetic values in their work, and so too are critics and philosophers of art. It is clear, in this sense, that moral values are sometimes artistic values, whether or not they are sometimes aesthetic values (which, as indicated above, is a more vexed question). A work of art that is aesthetically excellent, historically significant, and morally profound is a better work of art, overall, than one which is only some or none of these things (assuming of course that we hold the various achievements in the varieties of value constant across cases). This helps explain, in part, why judgments about artworks are so often contested. When one pays attention to the specifics of criticism or praise, one often finds that disputants are talking past each other: one is touting the excellence of a work while the other is decrying is triviality, but it will often turn out that the former, say, is focused on the work’s historical significance and moral fortitude, while the latter is considering only a specific set of aesthetic values relevant to the genre. Again, whether or not one believes varieties of value may sometimes merge, it is important to be mindful of their differences, so that evaluations are commensurable.

In closing, it should be noted that in addition to the topics discussed above, much interesting work has recently been undertaken on emotional engagement with artworks (including moral emotions), on a variety of relationships between works of art and simulation theory, imagination, and identification (where a great deal of this work has bearing on our understanding of the moral relevance of art), and on a variety of other topics. This is of course only the beginning, but a promising one, and I would wager that interest in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics has not only arrived: it is here to stay.

2002 © Jeffrey Dean

Please see my related posts:

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

On Aesthetics

On Beauty

On Classical Virtues

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

Drama Theory: Acting Strategically

Drama Theory: Choices, Conflicts and Dilemmas

Drama Therapy: Self in Performance


Main Sources of Research

Aesthetics and Ethics : Essays at the Intersection


On Aesthetics

On Aesthetics


What is Aesthetics?

Is it taste? Is it values? Is it virtues ?

Our likes and dislikes.

  • Aesthetics and Taste
  • Aesthetics and Values/Ethics
  • Consciousness
  • Culture
  • Appropriateness
  • Justness
  • Boundaries
  • Classes
  • Hierarchy
  • Inclusion
  • Exclusion


Is there higher and lower in Aesthetics

What appeals to us?  What we may disagree with?

Does taste define class? Does it define culture?

We create symbolic boundaries with what we exclude.

What is appropriate ? Is there higher and lower culture?

Classes, Hierarchy, Exclusion, Boundaries

The Concept of the Aesthetic

First published Fri Sep 11, 2009; substantive revision Tue Oct 17, 2017


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.

1. The Concept of Taste

The concept of the aesthetic descends from the concept of taste. Why the concept of taste commanded so much philosophical attention during the 18th century is a complicated matter, but this much is clear: the eighteenth-century theory of taste emerged, in part, as a corrective to the rise of rationalism, particularly as applied to beauty, and to the rise of egoism, particularly as applied to virtue. Against rationalism about beauty, the eighteenth-century theory of taste held the judgment of beauty to be immediate; against egoism about virtue, it held the pleasure of beauty to be disinterested.

1.1 Immediacy

Rationalism about beauty is the view that judgments of beauty are judgments of reason, i.e., that we judge things to be beautiful by reasoning it out, where reasoning it out typically involves inferring from principles or applying concepts. At the beginning of the 18th century, rationalism about beauty had achieved dominance on the continent, and was being pushed to new extremes by “les géomètres,” a group of literary theorists who aimed to bring to literary criticism the mathematical rigor that Descartes had brought to physics. As one such theorist put it:

The way to think about a literary problem is that pointed out by Descartes for problems of physical science. A critic who tries any other way is not worthy to be living in the present century. There is nothing better than mathematics as propaedeutic for literary criticism. (Terrasson 1715, Preface, 65; quoted in Wimsatt and Brooks 1957, 258)

It was against this, and against more moderate forms of rationalism about beauty, that mainly British philosophers working mainly within an empiricist framework began to develop theories of taste. The fundamental idea behind any such theory—which we may call the immediacy thesis—is that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not canonically) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments. It is the idea, in other words, that we do not reason to the conclusion that things are beautiful, but rather “taste” that they are. Here is an early expression of the thesis, from Jean-Baptiste Dubos’s Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music, which first appeared in 1719:

Do we ever reason, in order to know whether a ragoo be good or bad; and has it ever entered into any body’s head, after having settled the geometrical principles of taste, and defined the qualities of each ingredient that enters into the composition of those messes, to examine into the proportion observed in their mixture, in order to decide whether it be good or bad? No, this is never practiced. We have a sense given us by nature to distinguish whether the cook acted according to the rules of his art. People taste the ragoo, and tho’ unacquainted with those rules, they are able to tell whether it be good or no. The same may be said in some respect of the productions of the mind, and of pictures made to please and move us. (Dubos 1748, vol. II, 238–239)

And here is a late expression, from Kant’s 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment:

If someone reads me his poem or takes me to a play that in the end fails to please my taste, then he can adduce Batteux or Lessing, or even older and more famous critics of taste, and adduce all the rules they established as proofs that his poem is beautiful… . I will stop my ears, listen to no reasons and arguments, and would rather believe that those rules of the critics are false … than allow that my judgment should be determined by means of a priorigrounds of proof, since it is supposed to be a judgment of taste and not of the understanding of reason. (Kant 1790, 165)

But the theory of taste would not have enjoyed its eighteenth-century run, nor would it continue now to exert its influence, had it been without resources to counter an obvious rationalist objection. There is a wide difference—so goes the objection—between judging the excellence of a ragout and judging the excellence of a poem or a play. More often than not, poems and plays are objects of great complication. But taking in all that complication requires a lot of cognitive work, including the application of concepts and the drawing of inferences. Judging the beauty of poems and plays, then, is evidently not immediate and so evidently not a matter of taste.

The chief way of meeting this objection was first to distinguish between the act of grasping the object preparatory to judging it and the act of judging the object once grasped, and then to allow the former, but not the latter, to be as concept- and inference-mediated as any rationalist might wish. Here is Hume, with characteristic clarity:

[I]n order to pave the way for [a judgment of taste], and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained. Some species of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance command our affection and approbation; and where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the fine arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment. (Hume, 1751, Section I)

Hume—like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson before him, and Reid after him (Cooper 1711, 17, 231; Hutcheson 1725, 16–24; Reid 1785, 760–761)—regarded the faculty of taste as a kind of “internal sense.” Unlike the five “external” or “direct” senses, an “internal” (or “reflex” or “secondary”) sense is one that depends for its objects on the antecedent operation of some other mental faculty or faculties. Reid characterizes it as follows:

Beauty or deformity in an object, results from its nature or structure. To perceive the beauty therefore, we must perceive the nature or structure from which it results. In this the internal sense differs from the external. Our external senses may discover qualities which do not depend upon any antecedent perception… . But it is impossible to perceive the beauty of an object, without perceiving the object, or at least conceiving it. (Reid 1785, 760–761)

Because of the highly complex natures or structures of many beautiful objects, there will have to be a role for reason in their perception. But perceiving the nature or structure of an object is one thing. Perceiving its beauty is another.

1.2 Disinterest

Egoism about virtue is the view that to judge an action or trait virtuous is to take pleasure in it because you believe it to serve some interest of yours. Its central instance is the Hobbesian view—still very much on early eighteenth-century minds—that to judge an action or trait virtuous is to take pleasure in it because you believe it to promote your safety. Against Hobbesian egoism a number of British moralists—preeminently Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume—argued that, while a judgment of virtue is a matter of taking pleasure in response to an action or trait, the pleasure is disinterested, by which they meant that it is not self-interested (Cooper 1711, 220–223; Hutcheson 1725, 9, 25–26; Hume 1751, 218–232, 295–302). One argument went roughly as follows. That we judge virtue by means of an immediate sensation of pleasure means that judgments of virtue are judgments of taste, no less than judgments of beauty. But pleasure in the beautiful is not self-interested: we judge objects to be beautiful whether or not we believe them to serve our interests. But if pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested, there is no reason to think that pleasure in the virtuous cannot also be (Hutcheson 1725, 9–10).

The eighteenth-century view that judgments of virtue are judgments of taste highlights a difference between the eighteenth-century concept of taste and our concept of the aesthetic, since for us the concepts aesthetic and moral tend oppose one another such that a judgment’s falling under one typically precludes its falling under the other. Kant is chiefly responsible for introducing this difference. He brought the moral and the aesthetic into opposition by re-interpreting what we might call the disinterest thesis—the thesis that pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested (though see Cooper 1711, 222 and Home 2005, 36–38 for anticipations of Kant’s re-interpretation).

According to Kant, to say that a pleasure is interested is not to say that it is self-interested in the Hobbesian sense, but rather that it stands in a certain relation to the faculty of desire. The pleasure involved in judging an action to be morally good is interested because such a judgment issues in a desire to bring the action into existence, i.e., to perform it. To judge an action to be morally good is to become aware that one has a duty to perform the action, and to become so aware is to gain a desire to perform it. By contrast, the pleasure involved in judging an object to be beautiful is disinterested because such a judgment issues in no desire to do anything in particular. If we can be said to have a duty with regard to beautiful things, it appears to be exhausted in our judging them aesthetically to be beautiful. That is what Kant means when he says that the judgment of taste is not practical but rather “merely contemplative” (Kant 1790, 95).

By thus re-orienting the notion of disinterest, Kant brought the concept of taste into opposition with the concept of morality, and so into line, more or less, with the present concept of the aesthetic. But if the Kantian concept of taste is continuous, more or less, with the present-day concept of the aesthetic, why the terminological discontinuity? Why have we come to prefer the term ‘aesthetic’ to the term ‘taste’? The not very interesting answer appears to be that we have preferred an adjective to a noun. The term ‘aesthetic’ derives from the Greek term for sensory perception, and so preserves the implication of immediacy carried by the term ‘taste.’ Kant employed both terms, though not equivalently: according to his usage, ‘aesthetic’ is broader, picking out a class of judgments that includes both the normative judgment of taste and the non-normative, though equally immediate, judgment of the agreeable. Though Kant was not the first modern to use ‘aesthetic’ (Baumgarten had used it as early as 1735), the term became widespread only, though quickly, after his employment of it in the third Critique. Yet the employment that became widespread was not exactly Kant’s, but a narrower one according to which ‘aesthetic’ simply functions as an adjective corresponding to the noun “taste.” So for example we find Coleridge, in 1821, expressing the wish that he “could find a more familiar word than aesthetic for works of taste and criticism,” before going on to argue:

As our language … contains no other useable adjective, to express coincidence of form, feeling, and intellect, that something, which, confirming the inner and the outward senses, becomes a new sense in itself … there is reason to hope, that the term aesthetic, will be brought into common use. (Coleridge 1821, 254)

The availability of an adjective corresponding to “taste” has allowed for the retiring of a series of awkward expressions: the expressions “judgment of taste,” “emotion of taste” and “quality of taste” have given way to the arguably less offensive ‘aesthetic judgment,’ ‘aesthetic emotion,’ and ‘aesthetic quality.’ However, as the noun ‘taste’ phased out, we became saddled with other perhaps equally awkward expressions, including the one that names this entry.

2. The Concept of the Aesthetic

Much of the history of more recent thinking about the concept of the aesthetic can be seen as the history of the development of the immediacy and disinterest theses.

2.1 Aesthetic Objects

Artistic formalism is the view that the artistically relevant properties of an artwork—the properties in virtue of which it is an artwork and in virtue of which it is a good or bad one—are formal merely, where formal properties are typically regarded as properties graspable by sight or by hearing merely. Artistic formalism has been taken to follow from both the immediacy and the disinterest theses (Binkley 1970, 266–267; Carroll 2001, 20–40). If you take the immediacy thesis to imply the artistic irrelevance of all properties whose grasping requires the use of reason, and you include representational properties in that class, then you are apt to think that the immediacy thesis implies artistic formalism. If you take the disinterest thesis to imply the artistic irrelevance of all properties capable of practical import, and you include representational properties in that class, then you are apt to think that the disinterest thesis implies artistic formalism.

This is not to suggest that the popularity enjoyed by artistic formalism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries owed mainly to its inference from the immediacy or disinterest theses. The most influential advocates of formalism during this period were professional critics, and their formalism derived, at least in part, from the artistic developments with which they were concerned. As a critic Eduard Hanslick advocated for the pure music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and later Brahms, and against the dramatically impure music of Wagner; as a theorist he urged that music has no content but “tonally moving forms” (Hanslick 1986, 29). As a critic Clive Bell was an early champion of the post-Impressionists, especially Cezanne; as a theorist he maintained that the formal properties of painting—“relations and combinations of lines and colours”—alone have artistic relevance (Bell 1958, 17–18). As a critic Clement Greenberg was abstract expressionism’s ablest defender; as a theorist he held painting’s “proper area of competence” to be exhausted by flatness, pigment, and shape (Greenberg 1986, 86–87).

Not every influential defender of formalism has also been a professional critic. Monroe Beardsley, who arguably gave formalism its most sophisticated articulation, was not (Beardsley 1958). Nor is Nick Zangwill, who recently has mounted a spirited and resourceful defense of a moderate version of formalism (Zangwill 2001). But formalism has always been sufficiently motivated by art-critical data that once Arthur Danto made the case that the data no longer supported it, and perhaps never really had, formalism’s heyday came to an end. Inspired in particular by Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which are (more or less) perceptually indistinguishable from the brand-printed cartons in which boxes of Brillo were delivered to supermarkets, Danto observed that for most any artwork it is possible to imagine both (a) another object that is perceptually indiscernible from it but which is not an artwork, and (b) another artwork that is perceptually indiscernible from it but which differs in artistic value. From these observations he concluded that form alone neither makes an artwork nor gives it whatever value it has (Danto 1981, 94–95; Danto 1986, 30–31; Danto 1997, 91).

But Danto has taken the possibility of such perceptual indiscernibles to show the limitations not merely of form but also of aesthetics, and he has done so on the grounds, apparently, that the formal and the aesthetic are co-extensive. Regarding a urinal Duchamp once exhibited and a perceptual indiscernible ordinary urinal, Danto maintains that

aesthetics could not explain why one was a work of fine art and the other not, since for all practical purposes they were aesthetically indiscernible: if one was beautiful, the other one had to be beautiful, since they looked just alike. (Danto 2003, 7)

But the inference from the limits of the artistically formal to the limits of the artistically aesthetic is presumably only as strong as the inferences from the immediacy and disinterest theses to artistic formalism, and these are not beyond question. The inference from the disinterest thesis appears to go through only if you employ a stronger notion of disinterest than the one Kant understands himself to be employing: Kant, it is worth recalling, regards poetry as the highest of the fine arts precisely because of its capacity to employ representational content in the expression of what he calls ‘aesthetic ideas’ (Kant 1790, 191–194; see Costello 2008 and 2013 for extended treatment of the capacity of Kantian aesthetics to accommodate conceptual art). The inference from the immediacy thesis appears to go through only if you employ a notion of immediacy stronger than the one Hume, for example, takes himself to be defending when he claims (in a passage quoted in section1.1) that “in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the fine arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment” (Hume 1751, 173). It may be that artistic formalism results if you push either of the tendencies embodied in the immediacy and disinterest theses to extremes. It may be that the history of aesthetics from the 18th century to the mid-Twentieth is largely the history of pushing those two tendencies to extremes. It does not follow that those tendencies must be so pushed.

Consider Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Danto is right to maintain that the eighteenth-century theorist of taste would not know how to regard it as an artwork. But this is because the eighteenth-century theorist of taste lives in the 18th century, and so would be unable to situate that work in its twentieth-century art-historical context, and not because the kind of theory he holds forbids him from situating a work in its art-historical context. When Hume, for instance, observes that artists address their works to particular, historically-situated audiences, and that a critic therefore “must place himself in the same situation as the audience” to whom a work is addressed (Hume 1757, 239), he is allowing that artworks are cultural products, and that the properties that works have as the cultural products they are are among the “ingredients of the composition” that a critic must grasp if she is to feel the proper sentiment. Nor does there seem to be anything in the celebrated conceptuality of Brillo Boxes, nor of any other conceptual work, that ought to give the eighteenth-century theorist pause. Francis Hutcheson asserts that mathematical and scientific theorems are objects of taste (Hutcheson 1725, 36–41). Alexander Gerard asserts that scientific discoveries and philosophical theories are objects of taste (Gerard 1757, 6). Neither argues for his assertion. Both regard it as commonplace that objects of intellect may be objects of taste as readily as objects of sight and hearing may be. Why should the present-day aesthetic theorist think otherwise? If an object is conceptual in nature, grasping its nature will require intellectual work. If grasping an object’s conceptual nature requires situating it art-historically, then the intellectual work required to grasp its nature will include situating it art-historically. But—as Hume and Reid held (see section 1.1)—grasping the nature of an object preparatory to aesthetically judging it is one thing; aesthetically judging the object once grasped is another.

Though Danto has been the most influential and persistent critic of formalism, his criticisms are no more decisive than those advanced by Kendall Walton in his essay “Categories of Art.” Walton’s anti-formalist argument hinges on two main theses, one psychological and one philosophical. According to the psychological thesis, which aesthetic properties we perceive a work as having depends on which category we perceive the work as belonging to. Perceived as belonging to the category of painting, Picasso’s Guernica will be perceived as “violent, dynamic, vital, disturbing” (Walton 1970, 347). But perceived as belonging to the category of “guernicas”—where guernicas are works with “surfaces with the colors and shapes of Picasso’sGuernica, but the surfaces are molded to protrude from the wall like relief maps of different kinds of terrain”—Picasso’s Guernica will be perceived not as violent and dynamic, but as “cold, stark, lifeless, or serene and restful, or perhaps bland, dull, boring” (Walton 1970, 347). That Picasso’s Guernica can be perceived both as violent and dynamic and as not violent and not dynamic might be thought to imply that there is no fact of the matter whether it is violent and dynamic. But this implication holds only on the assumption that there is no fact of the matter which category Picasso’s Guernica actually belongs to, and this assumption appears to be false given that Picasso intended that Guernica be a painting and did not intend that it be a Guernica, and that the category of paintings was well-established in the society in which Picasso painted it while the category of guernicas was not. Hence the philosophical thesis, according to which the aesthetic properties a work actually has are those it is perceived as having when perceived as belonging to the category (or categories) it actually belongs to. Since the properties of having been intended to be a painting and having been created in a society in which painting is well-established category are artistically relevant though not graspable merely by seeing (or hearing) the work, it seems that artistic formalism cannot be true. “I do not deny,” Walton concludes, “that paintings and sonatas are to be judged solely on what can be seen or heard in them—when they are perceived correctly. But examining a work with the senses can by itself reveal neither how it is correct to perceive it, nor how to perceive it that way” (Walton 1970, 367).

But if we cannot judge which aesthetic properties paintings and sonatas have without consulting the intentions and the societies of the artists who created them, what of the aesthetic properties of natural items? With respect to them it may appear as if there is nothing to consult except the way they look and sound, so that an aesthetic formalism about nature must be true. Allen Carlson, a central figure in the burgeoning field of the aesthetics of nature, argues against this appearance. Carlson observes that Walton’s psychological thesis readily transfers from works of art to natural items: that we perceive Shetland ponies as cute and charming and Clydesdales as lumbering surely owes to our perceiving them as belonging to the category of horses (Carlson 1981, 19). He also maintains that the philosophical thesis transfers: whales actually have the aesthetic properties we perceive them as having when we perceive them as mammals, and do not actually have any contrasting aesthetic properties we might perceive them to have when we perceive them as fish. If we ask what determines which category or categories natural items actually belong to, the answer, according to Carlson, is their natural histories as discovered by natural science (Carlson 1981, 21–22). Inasmuch as a natural item’s natural history will tend not to be graspable by merely seeing or hearing it, formalism is no truer of natural items than it is of works of art.

The claim that Walton’s psychological thesis transfers to natural items has been widely accepted (and was in fact anticipated, as Carlson acknowledges, by Ronald Hepburn (Hepburn 1966 and 1968)). The claim that Walton’s philosophical thesis transfers to natural items has proven more controversial. Carlson is surely right that aesthetic judgments about natural items are prone to be mistaken insofar as they result from perceptions of those items as belonging to categories to which they do not belong, and, insofar as determining which categories natural items actually belong to requires scientific investigation, this point seems sufficient to undercut the plausibility of any very strong formalism about nature (see Carlson 1979 for independent objections against such formalism). Carlson, however, also wishes to establish that aesthetic judgments about natural items have whatever objectivity aesthetic judgments about works of art do, and it is controversial whether Walton’s philosophical claim transfers sufficiently to support such a claim. One difficulty, raised by Malcolm Budd (Budd 2002 and 2003) and Robert Stecker (Stecker1997c), is that since there are many categories in which a given natural item may correctly be perceived, it is unclear which correct category is the one in which the item is perceived as having the aesthetic properties it actually has. Perceived as belonging to the category of Shetland ponies, a large Shetland pony may be perceived as lumbering; perceived as belonging to the category of horses, the same pony may be perceived as cute and charming but certainly not lumbering. If the Shetland pony were a work of art, we might appeal to the intentions (or society) of its creator to determine which correct category is the one that fixes its aesthetic character. But as natural items are not human creations they can give us no basis for deciding between equally correct but aesthetically contrasting categorizations. It follows, according to Budd, “the aesthetic appreciation of nature is endowed with a freedom denied to the appreciation of art” (Budd 2003, 34), though this is perhaps merely another way of saying that the aesthetic appreciation of art is endowed with an objectivity denied to the appreciation of nature.

2.2 Aesthetic Judgment

The eighteenth-century debate between rationalists and theorists of taste (or sentimentalists) was primarily a debate over the immediacy thesis, i.e., over whether we judge objects to be beautiful by applying principles of beauty to them. It was not primarily a debate over the existence of principles of beauty, a matter over which theorists of taste might disagree. Kant denied that there are any such principles (Kant 1790, 101), but both Hutcheson and Hume affirmed their existence: they maintained that although judgments of beauty are judgments of taste and not of reason, taste nevertheless operates according to general principles, which might be discovered through empirical investigation (Hutcheson 1725, 28–35; Hume 1757, 231–233).

It is tempting to think of recent debate in aesthetics between particularists and generalists as a revival of the eighteenth-century debate between rationalists and theorists of taste. But the accuracy of this thought is difficult to gauge. One reason is that it is often unclear whether particularists and generalists take themselves merely to be debating the existence of aesthetic principles or to be debating their employment in aesthetic judgment. Another is that, to the degree particularists and generalists take themselves to be debating the employment of aesthetic principles in aesthetic judgment, it is hard to know what they can be meaning by ‘aesthetic judgment.’ If ‘aesthetic’ still carries its eighteenth-century implication of immediacy, then the question under debate is whether judgment that is immediate is immediate. If ‘aesthetic’ no longer carries that implication, then it is hard to know what question is under debate because it is hard to know what aesthetic judgment could be. It may be tempting to think that we can simply re-define ‘aesthetic judgment’ such that it refers to any judgment in which an aesthetic property is predicated of an object. But this requires being able to say what an aesthetic property is without reference to its being immediately graspable, something no one seems to have done. It may seem that we can simply re-define ‘aesthetic judgment’ such that it refers to any judgment in which any property of the class exemplified by beauty is predicated of an object. But which class is this? The classes exemplified by beauty are presumably endless, and the difficulty is to specify the relevant class without reference to the immediate graspability of its members, and that is what no one seems to have done.

However we are to sort out the particularist/generalist debate, important contributions to it include, on the side of particularism, Arnold Isenberg’s “Critical Communication” (1949) Frank Sibley’s “Aesthetic Concepts” (in Sibley 2001) and Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored (1984) and, on the side of generalism, Monroe Beardsley’s Aesthetics (1958) and “On the Generality of Critical Reasons” (1962), Sibley’s “General Reasons and Criteria in Aesthetics” (in Sibley 2001), George Dickie’s Evaluating Art (1987), Stephen Davies’s “Replies to Arguments Suggesting that Critics’ Strong Evaluations Could not be Soundly Deduced” (1995), and John Bender’s “General but Defeasible Reasons in Aesthetic Evaluation: The Generalist/Particularist Dispute” (1995). Of these, the papers by Isenberg and Sibley have arguably enjoyed the greatest influence.

Isenberg concedes that we often appeal to descriptive features of works in support of our judgments of their value, and he allows that this may make it seem as if we must be appealing to principles in making those judgments. If in support of a favorable judgment of some painting a critic appeals to the wavelike contour formed by the figures clustered in its foreground, it may seem as if his judgment must involve tacit appeal to the principle that any painting having such a contour is so much the better. But Isenberg argues that this cannot be, since no one agrees to any such principle:

There is not in all the world’s criticism a single purely descriptive statement concerning which one is prepared to say beforehand, ‘If it is true, I shall like that work so much the better’ (Isenberg 1949, 338).

But if in appealing to the descriptive features of a work we are not acknowledging tacit appeals to principles linking those features to aesthetic value, what are we doing? Isenberg believes we are offering “directions for perceiving” the work, i.e., by singling out certain its features, we are “narrow[ing] down the field of possible visual orientations” and thereby guiding others in “the discrimination of details, the organization of parts, the grouping of discrete objects into patterns” (Isenberg 1949, 336). In this way we get others to see what we have seen, rather than getting them to infer from principle what we have so inferred.

That Sibley advances a variety of particularism in one paper and a variety of generalism in another will give the appearance of inconsistency where there is none: Sibley is a particularist of one sort, and with respect to one distinction, and a generalist of another sort with respect to another distinction. Isenberg, as noted, is a particularist with respect to the distinction between descriptions and verdicts, i.e., he maintains that there are no principles by which we may infer from value-neutral descriptions of works to judgments of their overall value. Sibley’s particularism and generalism, by contrast, both have to do with judgments falling in between descriptions and verdicts. With respect to a distinction between descriptions and a set of judgments intermediate between descriptions and verdicts, Sibley is straightforwardly particularist. With respect to a distinction between a set of judgments intermediate between descriptions and verdicts and verdicts, Sibley is a kind of generalist and describes himself as such.

Sibley’s generalism, as set forth in “General Reasons and Criteria in Aesthetics,” begins with the observation that the properties to which we appeal in justification of favorable verdicts are not all descriptive or value-neutral. We also appeal to properties that are inherently positive, such as grace, balance, dramatic intensity, or comicality. To say that a property is inherently positive is not to say that any work having it is so much the better, but rather that its tout court attribution implies value. So although a work may be made worse on account of its comical elements, the simple claim that a work is good because comical is intelligible in a way that the simple claims that a work is good because yellow, or because it lasts twelve minutes, or because it contains many puns, are not. But if the simple claim that a work is good because comical is thus intelligible, comicality is a general criterion for aesthetic value, and the principle that articulates that generality is true. But none of this casts any doubt on the immediacy thesis, as Sibley himself observes:

I have argued elsewhere that there are no sure-fire rules by which, referring to the neutral and non-aesthetic qualities of things, one can infer that something is balanced, tragic, comic, joyous, and so on. One has to look and see. Here, equally, at a different level, I am saying that there are no sure-fire mechanical rules or procedures for deciding which qualities are actual defects in the work; one has to judge for oneself. (Sibley 2001, 107–108)

The “elsewhere” referred to in the first sentence is Sibley’s earlier paper, “Aesthetic Concepts,” which argues that the application of concepts such as ‘balanced,’ ‘tragic,’ ‘comic,’ or ‘joyous’ is not a matter of determining whether the descriptive (i.e., non-aesthetic) conditions for their application are met, but is rather a matter of taste. Hence aesthetic judgments are immediate in something like the way that judgments of color, or of flavor, are:

We see that a book is red by looking, just as we tell that the tea is sweet by tasting it. So too, it might be said, we just see (or fail to see) that things are delicate, balanced, and the like. This kind of comparison between the exercise of taste and the use of the five senses is indeed familiar; our use of the word ‘taste’ itself shows that the comparison is age-old and very natural (Sibley 2001, 13–14).

But Sibley recognizes—as his eighteenth-century forebears did and his formalist contemporaries did not—that important differences remain between the exercise of taste and the use of the five senses. Central among these is that we offer reasons, or something like them, in support of our aesthetic judgments: by talking—in particular, by appealing to the descriptive properties on which the aesthetic properties depend—we justify aesthetic judgments by bringing others to see what we have seen (Sibley 2001, 14–19).

It is unclear to what degree Sibley, beyond seeking to establish that the application of aesthetic concepts is not condition-governed, seeks also to define the term ‘aesthetic’ in terms of their not being so. It is clearer, perhaps, that he does not succeed in defining the term this way, whatever his intentions. Aesthetic concepts are not alone in being non-condition-governed, as Sibley himself recognizes in comparing them with color concepts. But there is also no reason to think them alone in being non-condition-governed while also being reason-supportable, since moral concepts, to give one example, at least arguably also have both these features. Isolating the aesthetic requires something more than immediacy, as Kant saw. It requires something like the Kantian notion of disinterest, or at least something to play the role played by that notion in Kant’s theory.

Given the degree to which Kant and Hume continue to influence thinking about aesthetic judgment (or critical judgment, more broadly), given the degree to which Sibley and Isenberg continue to abet that influence, it is not surprising that the immediacy thesis is now very widely received. The thesis, however, has come under attack, notably by Davies (1990) and Bender (1995). (See also Carroll (2009), who follows closely after Davies (1990), and Dorsch (2013) for further discussion.)

Isenberg, it will be recalled, maintains that if the critic is arguing for her verdict, her argumentation must go something as follows:

  1. Artworks having p are better for having p.
  2. W is an artwork having p.
  3. Therefore, W is so much the better for having p.

Since the critical principle expressed in premise 1 is open to counter-example, no matter what property we substitute for p, Isenberg concludes that we cannot plausibly interpret the critic as arguing for her verdict. Rather than defend the principle expressed in premise 1, Davies and Bender both posit alternative principles, consistent with the fact that no property is good-making in all artworks, which they ascribe to the critic. Davies proposes that we interpret the critic as arguing deductively from principles relativized to artistic type, that is, from principles holding that artworks of a specific types or categories—Italian Renaissance paintings, romantic symphonies, Hollywood Westerns, etc.—having p are better for having it (Davies 1990, 174). Bender proposes that we interpret the critic as arguing inductively from principles expressing mere tendencies that hold between certain properties and artworks—principles, in other words, holding that artworks having p tend to be better for having it (Bender 1995, 386).

Each proposal has its own weaknesses and strengths. A problem with Bender’s approach is that critics do not seem to couch their verdicts in probabilistic terms. Were a critic to say that a work is likely to be good, or almost certainly good, or even that she has the highest confidence that it must be good, her language would suggest that she had not herself experienced the work, perhaps that she had judged the work on the basis of someone else’s testimony, and that she was, therefore, no critic at all. We would therefore have good reason to prefer Davies’s deductive approach if only we had good reason for thinking that relativizing critical principles to artistic type removed the original threat of counterexample. Though it is clear that such relativizing reduces the relative number of counterexamples, we need good reason for thinking that it reduces that number to zero, and Davies provides no such reason. Bender’s inductive approach, by contrast, cannot be refuted by counterexample, but only by counter-tendency.

If the critic argues from the truth of a principle to the truth of a verdict—as Davies and Bender both contend—it must be possible for her to establish the truth of the principle before establishing the truth of the verdict. How might she do this? It seems unlikely that mere reflection on the nature of art, or on the natures of types of art, could yield up the relevant lists of good- and bad-making properties. At least the literature has yet to produce a promising account as to how this might be done. Observation therefore seems the most promising answer. To say that the critic establishes the truth of critical principles on the basis of observation, however, is to say that she establishes a correlation between certain artworks she has already established to be good and certain properties she has already established those works to have. But then any capacity to establish that works are good by inference from principles evidently depends on some capacity to establish that works are good without any such inference, and the question arises why the critic should prefer to do by inference what she can do perfectly well without. The answer cannot be that judging by inference from principle yields epistemically better results, since a principle based on observations can be no more epistemically sound than the observations on which it is based.

None of this shows that aesthetic or critical judgment could never be inferred from principles. It does however suggest that such judgment is first and foremost non-inferential, which is what the immediacy thesis holds.

2.3 The Aesthetic Attitude

The Kantian notion of disinterest has its most direct recent descendents in the aesthetic-attitude theories that flourished from the early to mid 20th century. Though Kant followed the British in applying the term ‘disinterested’ strictly to pleasures, its migration to attitudes is not difficult to explain. For Kant the pleasure involved in a judgment of taste is disinterested because such a judgment does not issue in a motive to do anything in particular. For this reason Kant refers to the judgment of taste as contemplative rather than practical (Kant 1790, 95). But if the judgment of taste is not practical, then the attitude we bear toward its object is presumably also not practical: when we judge an object aesthetically we are unconcerned with whether and how it may further our practical aims. Hence it is natural to speak of our attitude toward the object as disinterested.

To say, however, that the migration of disinterest from pleasures to attitudes is natural is not to say that it is inconsequential. Consider the difference between Kant’s aesthetic theory, the last great theory of taste, and Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory, the first great aesthetic-attitude theory. Whereas for Kant disinterested pleasure is the means by which we discover things to bear aesthetic value, for Schopenhauer disinterested attention (or “will-less contemplation”) is itself the locus of aesthetic value. According to Schopenhauer, we lead our ordinary, practical lives in a kind of bondage to our own desires (Schopenhauer 1819, 196). This bondage is a source not merely of pain but also of cognitive distortion in that it restricts our attention to those aspects of things relevant to the fulfilling or thwarting of our desires. Aesthetic contemplation, being will-less, is therefore both epistemically and hedonically valuable, allowing us a desire-free glimpse into the essences of things as well as a respite from desire-induced pain:

When, however, an external cause or inward disposition suddenly raises us out of the endless stream of willing, and snatches knowledge from the thralldom of the will, the attention is now no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will … Then all at once the peace, always sought but always escaping us … comes to us of its own accord, and all is well with us. (Schopenhauer 1819, 196)

The two most influential aesthetic-attitude theories of the 20th century are those of Edward Bullough and Jerome Stolnitz. According to Stolnitz’s theory, which is the more straightforward of the two, bearing an aesthetic attitude toward an object is a matter of attending to it disinterestedly and sympathetically, where to attend to it disinterestedly is to attend to it with no purpose beyond that of attending to it, and to attend to it sympathetically is to “accept it on its own terms,” allowing it, and not one’s own preconceptions, to guide one’s attention of it (Stolnitz 1960, 32–36). The result of such attention is a comparatively richer experience of the object, i.e., an experience taking in comparatively many of the object’s features. Whereas a practical attitude limits and fragments the object of our experience, allowing us to “see only those of its features which are relevant to our purposes,…. By contrast, the aesthetic attitude ‘isolates’ the object and focuses upon it—the ‘look’ of the rocks, the sound of the ocean, the colors in the painting.” (Stolnitz 1960, 33, 35).

Bullough, who prefers to speak of “psychical distance” rather than disinterest, characterizes aesthetic appreciation as something achieved

by putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our actual practical self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends—in short, by looking at it ‘objectively’ … by permitting only such reactions on our part as emphasise the ‘objective features of the experience, and by interpreting even our ‘subjective’ affections not as modes of our being but rather as characteristics of the phenomenon. (Bullough 1995, 298–299; emphasis in original).

Bullough has been criticized for claiming that aesthetic appreciation requires dispassionate detachment:

Bullough’s characterization of the aesthetic attitude is the easiest to attack. When we cry at a tragedy, jump in fear at a horror movie, or lose ourselves in the plot of a complex novel, we cannot be said to be detached, although we may be appreciating the aesthetic qualities of these works to the fullest… . And we can appreciate the aesthetic properties of the fog or storm while fearing the dangers they present. (Goldman 2005, 264)

But such a criticism seems to overlook a subtlety of Bullough’s view. While Bullough does hold that aesthetic appreciation requires distance “between our own self and its affections” (Bullough 1995, 298), he does not take this to require that we not undergo affections but quite the opposite: only if we undergo affections have we affections from which to be distanced. So, for example, the properly distanced spectator of a well-constructed tragedy is not the “over-distanced” spectator who feels no pity or fear, nor the “under-distanced” spectator who feels pity and fear as she would to an actual, present catastrophe, but the spectator who interprets the pity and fear she feels “not as modes of [her] being but rather as characteristics of the phenomenon” (Bullough 1995, 299). The properly distanced spectator of a tragedy, we might say, understands her fear and pity to be part of what tragedy is about.

The notion of the aesthetic attitude has been attacked from all corners and has very few remaining sympathizers. George Dickie is widely regarded as having delivered the decisive blow in his essay “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude” (Dickie 1964) by arguing that all purported examples of interested or distanced attention are really just examples of inattention. So consider the case of the spectator at a performance of Othello who becomes increasingly suspicious of his own wife as the action proceeds, or the case of the impresario who sits gauging the size of the audience, or the case of the father who sits taking pride in his daughter’s performance, or the case of the moralist who sits gauging the moral effects the play is apt to produce in its audience. These and all such cases will be regarded by the attitude theorist as cases of interested or distanced attention to the performance, when they are actually nothing but cases of inattention to the performance: the jealous husband is attending to his wife, the impresario to the till, the father to his daughter, the moralist to the effects of the play. But if none of them is attending to the performance, then none of them is attending to it disinterestedly or with distance (Dickie 1964, 57–59).

The attitude theorist, however, can plausibly resist Dickie’s interpretation of such examples. Clearly the impresario is not attending to the performance, but there is no reason to regard the attitude theorist as committed to thinking otherwise. As for the others, it might be argued that they are all attending. The jealous husband must be attending to the performance, since it is the action of the play, as presented by the performance, that is making him suspicious. The proud father must be attending to the performance, since he is attending to his daughter’s performance, which is an element of it. The moralist must be attending to the performance, since he otherwise would have no basis by which to gauge its moral effects on the audience. It may be that none of these spectators is giving the performance the attention it demands, but that is precisely the attitude theorist’s point.

But perhaps another of Dickie’s criticisms, one lesser known, ultimately poses a greater threat to the ambitions of the attitude theorist. Stolnitz, it will be recalled, distinguishes between disinterested and interested attention according to the purpose governing the attention: to attend disinterestedly is to attend with no purpose beyond that of attending; to attend interestedly is to attend with some purpose beyond that of attending. But Dickie objects that a difference in purpose does not imply a difference in attention:

Suppose Jones listens to a piece of music for the purpose of being able to analyze and describe it on an examination the next day and Smith listens to the same music with no such ulterior purpose. There is certainly a difference in the motives and intentions of the two men: Jones has an ulterior purpose and Smith does not, but this does not mean Jones’s listening differs from Smith’s … . There is only one way to listen to (to attend to) music, although there may be a variety of motives, intentions, and reasons for doing so and a variety of ways of being distracted from the music. (Dickie 1964, 58).

There is again much here that the attitude theorist can resist. The idea that listening is a species of attending can be resisted: the question at hand, strictly speaking, is not whether Jones and Smith listen to the music in the same way, but whether they attend in the same way to the music they are listening to. The contention that Jones and Smith are attending in the same way appears to be question-begging, as it evidently depends on a principle of individuation that the attitude theorist rejects: if Jones’s attention is governed by some ulterior purpose and Smith’s is not, and we individuate attention according to the purpose that governs it, their attention is not the same. Finally, even if we reject the attitude theorist’s principle of individuation, the claim that there is but one way to attend to music is doubtful: one can seemingly attend to music in myriad ways—as historical document, as cultural artifact, as aural wallpaper, as sonic disturbance—depending on which of the music’s features one attends to in listening to it. But Dickie is nevertheless onto something crucial to the degree he urges that a difference in purpose need not imply a relevantdifference in attention. Disinterest plausibly figures in the definition of the aesthetic attitude only to the degree that it, and it alone, focuses attention on the features of the object that matter aesthetically. The possibility that there are interests that focus attention on just those same features implies that disinterest has no place in such a definition, which in turn implies that neither it nor the notion of the aesthetic attitude is likely to be of any use in fixing the meaning of the term ‘aesthetic.’ If to take the aesthetic attitude toward an object simply is to attend to its aesthetically relevant properties, whether the attention is interested or disinterested, then determining whether an attitude is aesthetic apparently requires first determining which properties are the aesthetically relevant ones. And this task seems always to result either in claims about the immediate graspability of aesthetic properties, which are arguably insufficient to the task, or in claims about the essentially formal nature of aesthetic properties, which are arguably groundless.

But that the notions of disinterest and psychical distance prove unhelpful in fixing the meaning of the term ‘aesthetic’ does not imply that they are mythic. At times we seem unable to get by without them. Consider the case of The Fall of Miletus—a tragedy written by the Greek dramatist Phrynicus and staged in Athens barely two years after the violent Persian capture of the Greek city of Miletus in 494 BC. Herodotus records that

[the Athenians] found many ways to express their sorrow at the fall of Miletus, and in particular, when Phrynicus composed and produced a play called The Fall of Miletus, the audience burst into tears and fined him a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster that was so close to home; future productions of the play were also banned. (Herodotus, The Histories, 359)

How are we to explain the Athenian reaction to this play without recourse to something like interest or lack of distance? How, in particular, are we to explain the difference between the sorrow elicited by a successful tragedy and the sorrow elicited in this case? The distinction between attention and inattention is of no use here. The difference is not that the Athenians could not attend to The Fall whereas they could attend to other plays. The difference is that they could not attend to The Fall as they could attend to other plays, and this because of their too intimate connection to what attending to The Fall required their attending to.

2.4 Aesthetic Experience

Theories of aesthetic experience may be divided into two kinds according to the kind of feature appealed to in explanation of what makes experience aesthetic. Internalist theories appeal to features internal to experience, typically to phenomenological features, whereas externalist theories appeal to features external to the experience, typically to features of the object experienced. (The distinction between internalist and externalist theories of aesthetic experience is similar, though not identical, to the distinction between phenomenal and epistemic conceptions of aesthetic experience drawn by Gary Iseminger (Iseminger 2003, 100, and Iseminger 2004, 27, 36)). Though internalist theories—particularly John Dewey’s (1934) and Monroe Beardsley’s (1958)—predominated during the early and middle parts of the 20th century, externalist theories—including Beardsley’s (1982) and George Dickie’s (1988)—have been in the ascendant since. Beardsley’s views on aesthetic experience make a strong claim on our attention, given that Beardsley might be said to have authored the culminating internalist theory as well as the founding externalist one. Dickie’s criticisms of Beardsley’s internalism make an equally strong claim, since they moved Beardsley—and with him most everyone else—from internalism toward externalism.

According to the version of internalism Beardsley advances in his Aesthetics (1958), all aesthetic experiences have in common three or four (depending on how you count) features, which “some writers have [discovered] through acute introspection, and which each of us can test in his own experience” (Beardsley 1958, 527). These are focus (“an aesthetic experience is one in which attention is firmly fixed upon [its object]”), intensity, and unity, where unity is a matter of coherence and of completeness (Beardsley 1958, 527). Coherence, in turn, is a matter of having elements that are properly connected one to another such that

[o]ne thing leads to another; continuity of development, without gaps or dead spaces, a sense of overall providential pattern of guidance, an orderly cumulation of energy toward a climax, are present to an unusual degree. (Beardsley 1958, 528)

Completeness, by contrast, is a matter having elements that “counterbalance” or “resolve” one another such that the whole stands apart from elements without it:

The impulses and expectations aroused by elements within the experience are felt to be counterbalanced or resolved by other elements within the experience, so that some degree of equilibrium or finality is achieved and enjoyed. The experience detaches itself, and even insulates itself, from the intrusion of alien elements. (Beardsley 1958, 528)

Dickie’s most consequential criticism of Beardsley’s theory is that Beardsley, in describing the phenomenology of aesthetic experience, has failed to distinguish between the features we experience aesthetic objects as having and the features aesthetic experiences themselves have. So while every feature mentioned in Beardsley’s description of the coherence of aesthetic experience—continuity of development, the absence of gaps, the mounting of energy toward a climax—surely is a feature we experience aesthetic objects as having, there is no reason to think of aesthetic experience itself as having any such features:

Note that everything referred to [in Beardsley’s description of coherence] is a perceptual characteristic … and not an effect of perceptual characteristics. Thus, no ground is furnished for concluding that experience can be unified in the sense of being coherent. What is actually argued for is that aesthetic objects are coherent, a conclusion which must be granted, but not the one which is relevant. (Dickie 1965, 131)

Dickie raises a similar worry about Beardsley’s description of the completeness of aesthetic experience:

One can speak of elements being counterbalanced in the painting and say that the painting is stable, balanced and so on, but what does it mean to say the experience of the spectator of the painting is stable or balanced? … Looking at a painting in some cases might aid some persons in coming to feel stable because it might distract them from whatever is unsettling them, but such cases are atypical of aesthetic appreciation and not relevant to aesthetic theory. Aren’t characteristics attributable to the painting simply being mistakenly shifted to the spectator? (Dickie 1965, 132)

Though these objections turned out to be only the beginning of the debate between Dickie and Beardsley on the nature of aesthetic experience (See Beardsley 1969, Dickie 1974, Beardsley 1982, and Dickie 1987; see also Iseminger 2003 for a helpful overview of the Beardsley-Dickie debate), they nevertheless went a long way toward shaping that debate, which taken as whole might be seen as the working out of an answer to the question “What can a theory of aesthetic experience be that takes seriously the distinction between the experience of features and the features of experience?” The answer turned out to be an externalist theory of the sort that Beardsley advances in the 1982 essay “The Aesthetic Point of View” and that many others have advanced since: a theory according to which an aesthetic experience just is an experience having aesthetic content, i.e., an experience of an object as having the aesthetic features that it has.

The shift from internalism to externalism has not been without costs. One central ambition of internalism—that of fixing the meaning of ‘aesthetic’ by tying it to features peculiar to aesthetic experience—has had to be given up. But a second, equally central, ambition—that of accounting for aesthetic value by tying it to the value of aesthetic experience—has been retained. Indeed most everything written on aesthetic experience since the Beardsley-Dickie debate has been written in service of the view that an object has aesthetic value insofar as it affords valuable experience when correctly perceived. This view—which has come to be called empiricism about aesthetic value, given that it reduces aesthetic value to the value of aesthetic experience—has attracted many advocates over the last several years (Beardsley 1982, Budd 1985 and 1995, Goldman 1995 and 2006, Walton 1993, Levinson 1996 and 2006, Miller 1998, Railton 1998, and Iseminger 2004), while provoking relatively little criticism (Zangwill 1999, Sharpe 2000, D. Davies 2004, and Kieran 2005). Yet it can be wondered whether empiricism about aesthetic value is susceptible to a version of the criticism that has done internalism in.

For there is something odd about the position that combines externalism about aesthetic experience with empiricism about aesthetic value. Externalism locates the features that determine aesthetic character in the object, whereas empiricism locates the features that determine aesthetic value in the experience, when one might have thought that the features that determine aesthetic character just are the features that determine aesthetic value. If externalism and empiricism are both true, there is nothing to stop two objects that have different, even wholly disparate, aesthetic characters from nevertheless having the very same aesthetic value—unless, that is, the value-determining features of an experience are bound logically to the character-determining features of the object that affords it such that only an object with those features could afford an experience having that value. But in that case the value-determining features of the experience are evidently not simply the phenomenological features that might have seemed best suited to determine the value of the experience, but perhaps rather the representational or epistemic features of the experience that it has only in relation to its object. And this is what some empiricists have been urging of late:

Aesthetic experience … aims first at understanding and appreciation, at taking in the aesthetic properties of the object. The object itself is valuable for providing experience that could only be an experience of that object… . Part of the value of aesthetic experience lies in experiencing the object in the right way, in a way true to its nonaesthetic properties, so that the aim of understanding and appreciation is fulfilled. (Goldman 2006, 339–341; see also Iseminger 2004, 36)

But there is an unaddressed difficulty with this line of thought. While the representational or epistemic features of an aesthetic experience might very plausibly contribute to its value, such features very implausibly contribute to the value of the object affording such an experience. If the value of the experience of a good poem consists, in part, in its being an experience in which the poem is properly understood or accurately represented, the value of a good poem cannot consist, even in part, in its capacity to afford an experience in which it is properly understood or accurately represented, because, all things being equal, a bad poem presumably has these capacities in equal measure. It is of course true that only a good poem rewards an understanding of it. But then a good poem’s capacity for rewarding understanding is evidently to be explained by the poem’s already being good; it is evidently in virtue of its already being good that a poem rewards us on condition that we understand it.

Other empiricists have taken a different tack. Instead of trying to isolate the general features of aesthetic experience in virtue of which it and its objects are valuable, they simply observe the impossibility, in any particular case, of saying much about the value of an aesthetic experience without also saying a lot about the aesthetic character of the object. So, for example, referring to the values of the experiences that works of art afford, Jerrold Levinson maintains that

if we examine more closely these goods … we see that their most adequate description invariably reveals them to involve ineliminably the artworks that provide them… . The cognitive expansion afforded us by Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, similarly, is not so much a generalized effect of that sort as it is a specific state of stimulation undetachable from the particular turns and twists of Bartok’s carefully crafted essay… . even the pleasure we take in the Allegro of Mozart’s Symphony no. 29 is, as it were, the pleasure of discovering the individual nature and potential of its thematic material, and the precise way its aesthetic character emerges from its musical underpinnings… . there is a sense in which the pleasure of the Twenty-Ninth can be had only from that work. (Levinson 1996, 22–23; see also Budd 1985, 123–124)

There is no denying that when we attempt to describe, in any detail, the values of experiences afforded by particular works we quickly find ourselves describing the works themselves. The question is what to make of this fact. If one is antecedently committed to empiricism, it may seem a manifestation of the appropriately intimate connection between the aesthetic character of a work and the value of the experience that the work affords. But if one is not so committed, it may seem to manifest something else. If, when attempting to account for the aesthetic value of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet in terms of the value of the experience it affords, we find ourselves unable to say much about the value of that experience without saying something about the quartet’s “particular turns and twists,” this may be because the value resides in those twists and turns and not in the experience of them. To affirm such a possibility, of course, is not to deny that the value the quartet has in virtue of its particular twists in turns is a value that we experience it as having. It is rather to insist on sharply distinguishing between the value of experience and the experience of value, in something like the way Dickie insisted on sharply distinguishing between the unity of experience and the experience of unity. When the empiricist maintains that that value of Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, with its particular twists and turns, consists in the value of the experience that it affords, which experience is valuable, at least in part, because it is an experience of a quartet with those twists and turns, one may wonder whether a value originally belonging to the quartet has been transferred to the experience, before being reflected back, once again, onto the quartet.


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