George Dickie, Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Reviewed by Sarah Worth
I was told in graduate school that aesthetics is the “ugly stepsister” of philosophy. I was informed that if I wanted to specialize in aesthetics I should also be able to do some sort of real philosophy as well. Although I am not entirely sure how widely held these views about aesthetics are (I suspect they go beyond my graduate institution) I believe that aesthetics is a real philosophical discipline. George Dickie’s new book, Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach offers an examination of aesthetics in a concise, informative, and accessible but rigorous manner. This is real philosophy, and genuine aesthetic theory.
Dickie puts together in just 168 pages of text an excellent introduction to aesthetics. What makes it so different and worth serious consideration when book orders come due is that he skilfully combines an historical introduction of aesthetics with rigorous aesthetic theory. Beyond this, he carefully integrates his own work into the theoretical framework.
The book is divided into four main sections: (1) An Historical Introduction to Analytic Aesthetics, (2) Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: 1960’s to Present, (3) Four Problems in Aesthetics, and (4) The Evaluation of Art. The historical introduction gives a context to the current interpretations of what are very often the same problems. As Dickie explains in the preface, the history is there in order “to trace the central, organizing strains of the field and thereby [to] set the stage for discussion of present-day problems in aesthetics” (ix). The addition of the historical perspective before the theoretical sections allows the student an understanding of why these problems came about and how a number of different kinds of philosophers dealt with them. Aesthetic theory on its own is difficult to introduce without this history, so it is essential in an introductory text that the student is allowed a clear context not only to understand the history of the discipline but also to understand the development of the kinds of problems with which aesthetics deals.
However, one of my main criticisms of the book deals with the historical introduction. Although I think this sort of introduction is highly beneficial in introducing aesthetic theory, there is not enough of it. Either there is not enough, or it is just weighted too heavily in an Eighteenth century direction – the Eighteenth century was, of course, central to the development of aesthetics, but not at the expense of the rest of the history. Dickie begins, of course, with Plato, where all histories of aesthetics should begin. His discussion opens with an explanation of the ascension passage of Beauty in the Symposium. But Dickie also assumes a general understanding of Platonic theory, which students are not likely to have as fully developed as we might like them to have. He explains only briefly, in one sentence, the Platonic theory of Forms. He says “Plato therefore draws a sharp line between (1) beautiful things that are included within the class of objects that we see, hear, or touch in ‘the world of sense’ and (2) Beauty itself (and the other Forms), which exist apart from the world of sights and sounds in what Plato calls ‘the intelligible world.’” (7) This is an accurate summary of Plato’s Forms, but it is not enough to enable an undergraduate to understand the whole system.
Plato gets two full pages of explanation. But then we move on directly to St. Thomas Aquinas. In the first paragraph on Aquinas, there are four sentences on Aristotle, to fill in a bit of what has happened in the intermediate 600 years. This would not concern me so much if I did not read on to discover entire sections dedicated to Edmund Burke and Henry Alison. I am in favor of the brevity of texts, but I think a few pages more should have been dedicated to Aristotle. I am also fully in support of the lesser known but vitally important aestheticians being included in the history of aesthetics. I am pleased to be able to teach not only the familiar philosophers but aesthetics’ own canon, including Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, Hume and Alison. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries were pivotal for aesthetics, but not at the expense of the ancients.
I must give Dickie credit, however, as Plato and Aristotle do come up again later, in the fourth chapter on “The Theory of Art.” Here more explanation is given to both Plato and Aristotle, but it is forty-four pages later, long after they have first been discussed. This is, I suppose a necessary problem of juxtaposing a history of aesthetics with a text on theory. The two are bound to overlap, but the lengthier explanation, it seems to me, should be in the first introduction rather than in what comes later in the text.
The sections on Twentieth Century theories of art are excellent. Dickie explains not only how these theories encompass different kinds of problems, but he also puts them in context of what has come before. For example, he explains that “Susanne Langer’s and R. G. Collingwood’s [theories] are descendants of the two earlier philosophies [imitation and expression], Clive Bell’s is closely related to the traditional theory of beauty, and Morris Weitz’s view of defending ‘art’ is of more recent origin” (52). This is important for understanding the continuity of these ideas.
It is also commendable that Dickie divided the sections on Twentieth century aesthetics into two sections – Twentieth Century Theories of Art: 1914 to the 1950’s and then Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: 1960’s to Present. Although the Eighteenth century was perhaps the most important in terms of the development of aesthetic theory, the Twentieth century has posed questions of an entirely different nature than what came before. The first half of the century dealt with different kinds of problems than those we have faced in the latter half of the century.
Next, Dickie inserts his own work into the section on theory. It may seem difficult to have to present your own work within a canon without appearing to have solved all the problems. Dickie is able to discuss his own work clearly, however, and even presents the old and the new improved theories side by side. Thus he explains the Institutional Theory of Art from his 1974 book, Art and the Aesthetic, as being the earlier version of his current position. According to his original view, “a work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)” (83). He explains the components of the account and then discusses problems with it. He then presents the new and improved version – with nine pages of explanation in between. He reformulates his definition to say that “a work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public” (92). I laud Dickie for being able to put his own work into the context of aesthetic theory. Not many of us could do this so well.
The next section is another very important division for aesthetic theory. Dickie here deals with four different problems within current aesthetic theory: Intentionalist Criticism, Symbolism in Art, Metaphor and Expression. Granted none of these are only late Twentieth century problems, but they are dealt with now in a way that is different from how they were treated historically, so it is important to consider them separately. The difficulties with these sections are twofold. Firstly, the section on Expression is too short – perhaps it needs more history. Collingwood is referred to, but was covered thoroughly in a previous chapter (6). Thus again the problem of separating history and theory. Secondly, the section on Intentionalism suddenly moves from visual art, on which the book is mainly focused, to literary examples. Dickie glosses over this with the statement that “representation in the visual arts is similar to meaning in literature insofar as the artist’s intention is concerned” (103). I think that the visual arts, literary arts and musical arts all deserve separate consideration.
Dickie closes the book with important material, but makes it too complicated. It is a climax of aesthetic theory – the climax we have reached currently perhaps, but not one readily available to undergraduate students the way it is presented here. Here we have chapters on Beardsley’s and Goodman’s Instrumentalism which are difficult in their own right, but not unmanageable. Then there is a final chapter on “Another Kind of Instrumentalism.” Here Dickie critiques Beardsley and Goodman, and tries to pull what is good out of both to present a more accurate account of our aesthetic experiences. He does this, however, with a series of matrices which lead students to believe that art can be judged on a chart – a complicated chart, but still a chart. This concerns me mostly because with a book like this, finishing a semester with understanding charts on how to appreciate art, does not leave the student with questions and ambivalence fresh in his or her mind. Rather, it leaves the student (if not completely baffled by the charts themselves) thinking that one can assess art simply, which goes against much of traditional aesthetics.
I would use this book in an Introduction to Aesthetics class, and indeed I have used it already. The juxtaposition of history and theory is important, and although there are inherent problems with the organizing of the two, as I have noted, there are definite merits of having both available in one book. This book is, for the most part, easy to understand an accessible to an undergraduate with little or no philosophy background.
1998 © Sarah Worth