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Survey Results (1998)
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Aesthetics in the Academy: Survey Results in Brief

Dominic McIver Lopes

During the fall of 1998 the American Society for Aesthetics conducted a survey of the chairs of philosophy departments in North America in order to gauge the status of aesthetics (or the philosophy of art) in the American academy. In particular, the survey was designed to ascertain what proportion have philosophers of art on staff, what aesthetics courses are offered, what the demand for those courses is, and how many graduate departments are training students with a competence in aesthetics.

1. The Survey and Its Reliability

The survey was sent to 368 philosophy department chairs, including every department with a doctoral program in philosophy and a random selection of other departments. Respondents were assured that their responses would be kept confidential and reported only as aggregate data.

One hundred and fifty departments returned the survey – a very high response rate of 41 percent. The response rate of the departments with doctoral programs was 85 percent, ensuring a reliable picture of the status of aesthetics in graduate schools.

With one exception, the responding institutions appear representative. Whether categorized by geographical location, type (private or public), size of overall institutional enrolment or size of enrolment in philosophy, they correspond closely to the benchmark provided by the APA’s much larger 1994 survey of Philosophy in America (Schacht 1997: 2-5).

The exception concerns two-year colleges. According to the APA survey, fully one quarter of US colleges and universities offering philosophy courses have no degree in philosophy (Schacht 1997: 2). However, only three percent of departments responding to the ASA survey fall in this class. We should keep this in mind as we consider the results of the survey. For example, it’s plausible that there are fewer philosophers specializing in aesthetics at such institutions, so that the survey overestimates the fraction of philosophers specializing in aesthetics. At the same time, we may be less worried about the representation of aesthetics in these departments, which will tend to be very small.

2. Aesthetics Courses

One purpose of the survey is to gauge what might be described as the demand for aesthetics – that is, aesthetics teaching. On the whole, this demand appears to be very healthy, indeed increasing slightly.

Aesthetics Outside Philosophy

Half the institutions surveyed have a course in aesthetics taught outside philosophy, usually in fine art, literature, film studies or music, though some courses are also taught in departments of architecture, anthropology, sociology, psychology and education.

One might suppose that there is a relationship between aesthetics offerings in the philosophy department and aesthetics offerings outside philosophy. Aesthetics offerings in departments other than philosophy might sap demand for a philosophy department’s aesthetics courses or it might stimulate it. Tests were run to detect such a relationship.

Contrary to expectation, offerings outside philosophy are not a factor determining whether or not aesthetics is offered within philosophy or, if it is offered, how often it is offered. The teaching of aesthetics outside philosophy neither stimulates nor dampens the teaching of aesthetics within philosophy.

Even so, the survey data indicate that there is widespread demand for courses in aesthetics across the university curriculum. Aesthetics may be one of philosophy’s most successful exports.

Aesthetics in Philosophy Courses

Sixty-three percent of departments report that aesthetics is covered sometimes or often in their lower division philosophy courses. This interest carries forward to the upper division, where topics in aesthetics are sometimes or often broached in non-aesthetics courses in an astonishing nine of ten departments.

It would be no surprise to find aesthetics mentioned in historical courses, especially courses in ancient philosophy, Hume, Kant, Hegel and continental philosophy. But it appears that topics in aesthetics also have a home in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, feminist philosophy, ethics and political theory. Aesthetics is clearly extremely well integrated in the philosophy curriculum in North America.

Is there a difference in the way aesthetics is integrated into the curriculum in departments with different orientations? Aesthetics “sometimes” or “often” pops up in non-aesthetics courses in 90 percent of analytically and continentally-oriented departments alike, though it appears “often” in courses offered by seven times as many continental departments as analytic ones. In historically-oriented departments, which are overwhelmingly undergraduate, topics in aesthetics are broached in just over half of non-aesthetics courses.

Undergraduate Aesthetics Courses

Forty-five percent of philosophy departments offer at least one lower division course in aesthetics and 11 percent offer more than one. The average enrolment is 27 students at an average rate of one and a half sections per year.

Only 14 percent of departments offer no upper division course in aesthetics. Half offer one, a quarter offer two and one in ten offers three or more. Of those departments with a course in philosophy, four in ten offer a course at least once a year, a third every other year, and quarter less frequently. The median enrolment in upper division aesthetics courses is 17 and the average is 22 students.

For purposes of comparison, this distribution spectrum resembles those for offerings in epistemology and philosophy of science (Schacht 1997: 45-7).

The vast majority (85 percent) of departments offering any course in aesthetics offer a generic course. Of this group of 129 departments, 50 offer philosophy of literature, 20 the history of aesthetics, 18 philosophy of film, ten the philosophy of the visual arts, eight feminist aesthetics and a handful each offer music aesthetics and environmental aesthetics.

It should be noted that there is demand for these courses despite the fact that almost no department requires an aesthetics course for the major. Moreover, only one in seven departments offer aesthetics courses that are required by majors outside philosophy – mostly fine art and art history, with a few for music, architecture and art education majors.

Indeed, one in five chairs report that their department does not offer enough courses to meet current demand and 70 percent of these are planning to offer more courses. That is, one department of every seven surveyed plan to increase its offerings in aesthetics.

Three of four chairs report demand in these courses is steady. It is increasing in 13 percent of departments and decreasing in nine percent. This matches the APA’s data (Schacht 1997: 44). To put this in perspective, compare it with the demand and demand trends for epistemology and philosophy of science (Schacht 1997: 45-7).

In sum, aesthetics courses are offered regularly in most philosophy departments – with a frequency comparable to other core courses in philosophy. Aesthetics courses are also offered in great diversity. Demand for theses courses is increasing moderately and a sizeable number of departments have plans to increase offerings.

Graduate Aesthetics Courses

One in every three departments with a doctoral program offers no aesthetics courses whatsoever at the graduate level but 39 percent offer one course, 18 percent offer two and nine percent offer three or more. Almost equal fractions offer a course every year, once every two years and only occasionally (see Frequency of Offerings chart above).

This distribution correlates with the figures for the proportion of faculty specializing in aesthetics in doctoral departments, discussed below.

This correlation is not inconsistent with the diversity of graduate aesthetics course offerings, which approaches that of undergraduate offerings. A generic course is taught in 31 departments, 21 offer the history of aesthetics, eight offer philosophy of literature, five offer philosophy of film, five offer feminist philosophy and a handful offer a smattering of others. It is notable that history of aesthetics is much stronger at the graduate level. This is due to the number of graduate courses devoted to single historical figures.

Demand trends for graduate level courses are even higher than for undergraduate courses (see Demand Trends above). Seventy-two percent of chairs report demand as steady, but only seven percent report it as declining and 22 percent report it as on the increase.

This is no surprise in view of the popularity among graduate students of aesthetics. Fully half of doctoral departments have at least one graduate student developing a competence in aesthetics and a third have more than one. Half have at least one student writing an MA or PhD dissertation related to aesthetics and a quarter have more than one. Among the departments responding (85 percent of all doctoral departments) there are 93 graduate students developing a competence in aesthetics and 56 students writing dissertations related to aesthetics.

3. Aesthetics Faculty

A Profile of Aesthetics Faculty in Philosophy Departments

The average number of resident faculty at the departments surveyed is 7.8. The average proportion of faculty within these departments who do at least some research in aesthetics is one in five.

One in four departments have a specialist in aesthetics and three of every four departments have at least one full-time member who is doing at least some research in aesthetics. Moreover, almost half have more than one member doing some research in aesthetics.

Doctoral departments depart from this picture in two respects. First, more departments have a specialist in aesthetics – almost four in ten. Second, almost nine in ten have at least one member doing some research in aesthetics. As noted above, departments that do not have a specialist in aesthetics are more likely not to offer a course in aesthetics. This probably reflects a reasonable reluctance to offer graduate-level courses in a field not taught by specialists in the field.

Incidentally, the chance that a department has representation in aesthetics does not appear to be affected by its philosophical orientation. An analytically-oriented department is as likely to have a member who does work in aesthetics as a continentally-oriented or a balanced department.

Aesthetics Faculty: Trends

As noted, demand for aesthetics courses is increasing overall. Is this matched by hiring trends?

During the past decade, one in four of the departments surveyed lost an aesthetician. Of these, 42 percent have rehired in aesthetics and 19 percent have plans to. In addition, one in ten departments who have not lost an aesthetician plan to hire one.

Assuming that plans to hire are fulfilled, these numbers indicate a very slight net rate of attrition of two percent of the aesthetics professoriate every decade. However, taking into account the margin of error for the survey, it is equally likely that the aesthetics professoriate will probably remain close to its currents numbers.

4. Conclusions

Several main conclusions about aesthetics courses are warranted:

  1. There is wide coverage of aesthetics outside philosophy. This does not affect demand for aesthetics courses offered by philosophy departments.
  2. Aesthetics is extremely well integrated into the philosophy curriculum, though somewhat less so in historically-oriented departments.
  3. There is a remarkable variety of aesthetics courses on offer at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  4. Demand for aesthetics courses is steady and increasing somewhat. It matches demand for epistemology (a core course) and philosophy of science (an important non-core course).
  5. At the graduate level, demand for aesthetics as an area of competence or a dissertation topic is very healthy. Almost one in four departments report an increase in demand for aesthetics.
  6. Many chairs would like to offer more aesthetics and a substantial number have plans to.
  7. The philosophical orientation of departments is not a factor in any of these facts, except that aesthetics courses are offered in fewer departments with historical orientations.
These conclusions suggest that additional hiring is needed in aesthetics. First, as their chairs recognize, undergraduate departments must fill current and projected demand for a wealth of aesthetics courses. Second, graduate departments must also fill the demand for new candidates on the job market with the ability to teach courses in aesthetics.


Schacht, Richard (1997) Philosophy in America 1994: Summary and Results. Newark: American Philosophical Association.

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