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Review of Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics
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David Cooper, ed., Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1995)

Reviewed by Robert Paul

This book contains 130 articles by eighty-two contributors. It covers topics in and related to the philosophy of art and presents critical summaries of the work of both historically influential and recently trendy writers in the field. It is a well-made artifact. The paperback version can be easily lifted and held by most persons over the age of ten. It is perspicuously laid out, sturdily bound, and the type is legible. Who needs it?

If one looks up ‘Kant, Immanuel,’ in an abridged dictionary one will learn that Kant was a ‘German philosopher,’ born 1724, died 1804. If one looks up ‘Kant’ in the Companion, one will learn rather more. In four and a half pages, David Whewell gives one of the most concise and lucid summaries of Kant’s aesthetic theory that I have seen in English. He manages not only to summarize and to show the unity of Kant’s thought but to offer what I take to be his own straightforward criticisms of it as well. His treatment of Kant is entirely – and refreshingly – free from jargon, unhampered by any obligatory deference to past interpretations. A short bibliography and cross references to ‘attitude, aesthetic; beauty; judgement, aesthetic; pleasure, aesthetic; sublime; Shaftesbury; [and] taste’ follow.

I would like to say that his exemplary essay sets the tone for the work. Alas, not quite: some of the entries are pleasantly skimmable, others just adequate, and a few disappointingly thin. Most, however, are informed and conscientious.

My own interests led me to the essay on Wittgenstein by Malcolm Budd. Budd does not quite succeed in showing the relevance of Wittgenstein’s own limited appreciation of the arts (he would tolerate no music later than Brahms’s) to whatever views on aesthetics might be extracted from his lectures and writings. The reader who might want to track them down is not told that the ‘few gnomic utterances about art’ found in Wittgenstein’s ‘early philosophy’ – e.g. ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one’ and ‘The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis’ – are from the Notebooks 1914-1916, nor that the view that ‘what is of value in art cannot be spoken of’ is entailed by the theory of meaning and language set forth in the Tractatus, whose real philosophical moral is that the important questions of human life can neither be asked nor answered by philosophy. It is not, then, surprising that no aesthetic theory can be extracted from Wittgenstein’s early thought to which this account of language is essential. That no aesthetic theory can be extracted from his ‘later’ thought is again unsurprising (‘Do you think I have a theory?’)

But although Budd is correct in saying that art did not lie at the center of Wittgenstein’s philosophical concern, it is not quite right to say that neither the Tractatus nor the Investigations ‘has much to say about art.’ ‘Not very much about art strictly speaking,’ one might say: for Part II of the Investigations contains a rich and powerfully suggestive discussion of seeing, ‘seeing-as,’ illusion, the dawning and changing of an aspect, ‘aspect blindness,’ and the emotional expressiveness of melodies and pictures. Incomplete as they are, these passages have yet to be usefully explored by aestheticians, and it is unfortunate that Budd’s otherwise admirable summary does not call attention to them. A bibliographical reference to this material would also have been appropriate following the entries on illusion, depiction, and representation. It would be asking too much to expect anyone to draw together all the scattered allusions and anecdotes that bear on Wittgenstein and art, but I’m sure that the editors would have granted space for references to Norman Malcolm’s memoir and to Ray Monk’s unsurpassed biography of Wittgenstein, in which they are recorded.

There are gems. Mary Mothersill’s intelligent and sparkling essay on beauty is a beautiful example of how life can be breathed into a tired and tangled subject, even though it is for her a subject re-visited via her equally intelligent and sparkling Beauty Restored. A few entries seem to have been written mostly out of a sense of duty, such as the one that begins ‘It is impossible to give a simple definition of “creativity,”’ and there are disappointments, for example Bernard Williams’s remarks on censorship, which approach the subject tepidly and ahistorically. (It is not clear why such an entry was needed.) Malcolm Budd wrestles the protean subject of emotion to a draw, which is perhaps the best one can do; but his discussion of emotion and works of art swerves off into an attempt to delimit a general theory of the emotions, something only the brave would undertake in such close quarters.

Although this is an entirely personal regret, I am sorry that Colin Lyas’s modest (and I mean ‘modest’ in a double sense) treatment of Frank Sibley’s work does not hint at the vigor, clarity, and wit of Sibley’s thought and writing, which did so much to relieve the ‘dreariness of aesthetics’ at a time when (if this is a measure of anything) serious philosophical journals rarely gave space to articles on the subject. Lyas is perhaps too self-effacing for Sibley’s good. Moreover, as Sibley published so little, it would have been appropriate to have cited ‘Aesthetics and the Looks of Things,’ in the list of his works.

Comprehensiveness is in the eye of the specialist, but there are some strange gaps in coverage. While the editors resist the ineluctable modality of the visible, there is no separate treatment of architecture or music (the entry under ‘composition of music’ is only hopefully related to its appended cross references), or of drama or dance, each of which clearly presents a special problem for any general aesthetic theory. (Music and drama are briefly mentioned under ‘performance,’ and music under ‘ontology of artworks.’) I was pleased to see an entry for ‘fictional entities,’ although the bibliography supplied for the topic is meager, and includes a reference to an article by Terence Parsons that would be inaccessible to most undergraduate readers (and to any aesthetician unfamiliar with the predicate calculus), and does not mention David Lewis. I missed a sustained discussion of our emotional responses to works of fiction and dramatic performances (it is alluded to but not pursued in the entry under ‘emotion.’) An account of how this phenomenon, which Aristotle took for granted, came to be seen as paradoxical by such diverse people as Augustine, Samuel Johnson and Kendall Walton would have been illuminating. The question of why we respond to and care about the fortunes of fictional persons (all the while knowing that they are fictional) is of interest not merely to psychologists and surely deserved an entry of its own.

The contributors seem to have been under no injunction to provide uniform biographical information about the authors they discuss. We learn the title of Mikel Dufrenne’s dissertation, that Arthur Danto is a past president of the American Philosophical Association (which is, strictly speaking, an impossibility), but not that Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army during World War I, or that Kant languished and flourished in K√∂nigsberg. Thus one familiar with a person’s works but not her life could not rely on the Companion for a quick reminder, and those already conversant with a subject or an author might feel they had no need to consult it for much else. Reassuring as it might be to feel this way, I urge those who do to test their own intuitions against those of the contributors: in almost every case they will find something worthwhile to test them against.

There are a few prima facie imbalances. The entry for George Dickie (for whom I have nothing but admiration) is more extensive than that for Aristotle; there is an entry for Julia Kristeva but none for Bernard Bosanquet or Levinas; Vasari is buried in the entry for ‘art history’ – but these and similar oddities are surely artifacts of the briefs given by the editors to the contributors and are inevitable in a project involving so much shepherding and coordination. The ineffable subject of ineffability has its own entry, but where the bibliography should cite the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one finds only a reference to Brian McGuinness’s book on Wittgenstein’s early years. The entry for ‘properties, aesthetic,’ lists a non-existent work by Frank Sibley in its bibliography. And so it might go: but quibbles are not criticism.

Who needs this work? ‘No undergraduate library should be without it,’ I should like to say, but why should I honestly say it? Imagine an undergraduate who has seen a reference elsewhere to the intentional fallacy or to the expression theory of art, turning to the Companion. The student will be well-served, but not so well served that he or she could simply paste material from the relevant entries into a term paper that required a critical account of either subject. Thus, the Companion will help students to get their bearings without doing all of their work for them: to this extent it is, I think, a welcome guide, one that at present has no equal. Graduate students, researchers, and professional academics, and specialists in various fields may find slightly less nourishment, but even they should admire its range.

 

1998 © Robert Paul

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