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Review of International Yearbook of Aesthetics
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International Yearbook of Aesthetics (1996)

Reviewed by Phil Alperson

It is a pleasure to welcome into print the first volume of the International Yearbook of Aesthetics, edited by Göran Hermerén and based largely on papers presented at the XIIth International Congress of Aesthetics in Lahti, Finland, organized by the International Association for Aesthetics in August 1995. This volume is valuable, not only for the essays it contains, but also for what the volume represents: an effort to further work in aesthetics by making available scholarship from in different cultures and aesthetic traditions.

The collection comprises nine essays organized thematically around four “minisymposia” entitled, respectively, “European and Chinese Traditions in Aesthetics,” “Emotion, Fiction, and the Contextualist Turn,” “Understanding Modernism and Postmodernism, and “Can Aesthetics Be Applied in Practice?” But the collection can be considered profitably from other standpoints as well. One might well ask, for example, in what sense the Yearbook is an “international” collection.

The volume is obviously international in the minimal sense of assembling the works of scholars from different countries, and at least one of the essays in the collection, however valuable it is on its own terms, is simply an example of a writer of one nationality taking on the philosophical literature of another, or more accurately in this case, of the literature in another’s language. Thus, the Finnish scholar Arto Haapala’s essay, “The Role of Experience in Understanding Works of Art,” contributes to Anglo-American debates about the paradox of emotional reactions to fiction by concentrating on the work of several philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition (T.J. Diffey, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Peter Lamarque, Kendall Walton, Alex Neill, R.K. Elliott, and Malcolm Budd) and appealing to the examples standard in the literature (Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky). Haapala argues the case that the paradox is resolved, not by claiming that fictional entities are in some sense real (as abstract entities, for example) or that the emotions felt in relation to fictional characters and events are quasi-emotions in a game of make-believe, but rather by contending that the emotions felt are real but “non-primordial” – i.e. emotions felt at a distance – and that this sort of experience is at the heart of the interpretation and understanding of works of art generally.

Other essays in the collection are international in a somewhat stronger sense, discussing topics presumably of interest to an international audience and making at least limited gestures toward comparative discussion of one sort or another. Arnold Berleant’s “Aesthetics in Practice and the Practise of Aesthetics” is a contribution of this sort, a thoughtful plea for aesthetic theory and criticism to be firmly inductively grounded in the concrete and changing practices of the arts and related activities. Such an orientation, Berleant suggests, will serve to enlarge the range of aesthetic appreciation as it is typically conceived in classical Western aesthetics. Stefan Morawski, in “My Critical Supplement to Lahti’s Pious Illusion,” wonders whether there can be any sound conceptual basis for the idea of an “applied aesthetics” if one strays too far away from an aesthetic theory centering on beautiful objects and works of art “with their experiential parallels.” Morawski also raises some practical, political, and cultural objections to theories and normative programs of applied aesthetics, asking, among other things, if aesthetics is to be applied, in which fashion will it be applied? (this in a paragraph with passing references to Nazi and Soviet dictatorships and the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent). Ananta Sukla’s essay, “Emotion, Aesthetic Experience and the Contextualist Turn: An Indian Perspective,” also falls into the category of gestural internationalism. Sukla briefly notes Marcia Eaton’s work on the social construction of aesthetic response, then gives himself over to an informative survey of contextualist treatments of emotions in aesthetic response by Sanskrit critics of Indian antiquity, concluding with the view that while contextualist theories generally have the merit of respecting the differences of individual linguistic systems and cultural codes and contexts, they run the risk of underestimating the extent to which emotion is a universal, natural phenomenon. Sukla himself leans toward the view that emotions are universal but culture-bound with respect to the causes of emotion and the nuances that determine emotional responses.

Other contributions in the Yearbook seek to draw conceptual parallels among national and cultural aesthetical literatures more explicitly and at greater length. In “The Importance of Chinese Philosophy for Western Aesthetics,” for example, the German scholar Herbert Mainusch, invites us to look at similarities in the treatments of abstraction and constructive aspects of interpretation in the writings of Chuang-Tzu, Hans Lenk, Nietzsche, and Oscar Wilde, in the approaches to dialogical structures by Plato and Lao-Tzu, and in Goethe’s and Wilde’s comments on the question of the limits of language. Karl-Heinz Pohl (“Chinese Aesthetics and Kant”) compares Chinese views of the roles of rules, the imitation of nature, creativity, and imagination in art with similar notions in Kant, being careful to point out important differences such as the greater weight placed on the concept of originality for Kant and the profound difference between the poetically suggestive style of Chinese writers and Kant’s “repulsive” (sic) analytic and systematic mode of discourse.

The trio of papers on the topic of modernism and postmodernism by Moisssej Kagan, Joseph Margolis, and Tom Rockmore is more deeply comparative and ambitious than the other contributions for reasons both internal and external to the papers themselves: the intercultural sweep of these papers is wider, in part a consequence of the history and development of the topic itself, and the papers hang together more as a unified symposium than do the other groupings, with Margolis and Rockmore referring explicitly to Kagan’s paper. These essays are quite dense and do not reduce well to formula or brief paraphrase. At the risk of irresponsible oversimplification, I can here venture only the sketchiest of comments.

Kagan, in “Postmodernism as a Birth of New Type of Culture,” sees the opposition of Postmodernism to Modernism as centering around fundamentally different world outlooks that dominating thought and culture in the second half of the twentieth century. On Kagan’s view, the core of modernist culture is its supervaluation of creativity, innovation, and novelty, seen as the “general criterion of human activity.” Kagan characterizes the formal artistic experimentation of the modernist movement, especially its elitist abstraction and social escapism, as an egocentric and narcissistic rupture with both nature and society. Postmodernist art, on his view, is a dialogical reaction to modernism arising from the wish to overcome the rupture between mass and elitist forms of culture, and eventuating, especially in cinema, literature, and technically-grounded arts such as architecture, video and computer-art, in artworks that combine an emphasis on the reproduction of reality with the creation of an “artistic reality,’ unreal, fantastic, mythological… [a new realism] enriched with the modernist art-language.” On Kagan’s showing, then, postmodernism is a dialectical phenomenon, both a continuation of modernism and its negation, a new type of art that at the same time returns to the classical past, a thesis that Kagan ties closely to twentieth-century social, political, economic, technical, and cultural developments and to changing relations between East and West.

Margolis, in “Beneath and Beyond the Modernism/Postmodernism Debate,” is less sanguine about the possibility of identifying the terms of the debate. There is, he says, no settled center to the debate which, he contends, “is more a symptom than a problematic of its own,” and Margolis goes on to cite various essentially incommensurable issues that populate academic and public discussions of the terms. What is the debate symptomatic of? No less than an increasingly widely felt, though less often analyzed, question about the nature of reality and our grasp of it, with all the attendant implications for entrenched norms and canons. Margolis, then, with not a little dose of irony, suggests that the terms of the debate can be stipulated after all: modernism can be understood in connection with “the conviction that, in our inquiries, whether with regard to physical nature or human culture, we can discern the ‘way the world is’ independent (in an appropriate sense) of the very conditions of inquiry;” postmodernism becomes the denial of that thesis, the contention that reality is a flux. Margolis then plumbs the depths of the debate, so construed, with special attention to the implications of the historicity of thought and the constraints of bivalent logic. Rockmore, (in “Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Social Function of Art”) brings some of the themes raised by Kagan and Margolis together by explicitly linking questions of epistemic foundationalism and anti-foundationalism to a consideration of the social function of art and by offering an interesting discussion of the cognitive claims of art in the context of the historical development of modern philosophy in the West.

The articles in the Yearbook are short, typically in the neighborhood of eight to ten pages, barely enough room for some promising discussions to get off the ground. This is a special hardship in the case of cross-cultural discussions where it normally takes some doing to identify the locus of discussion and central terms, concepts, and strategies around which problems and issues are framed, not to mention establishing where one stands between the Scylla of blithely mapping one’s own concepts onto the theory and practice of another culture and the Charybdis of regarding other cultures as so utterly alien that one’s best counsel is to remain silent. It is also a little surprising that this collection contains no contributions by women.

Still, taken as whole, the Yearbook is a valuable enterprise. The book is based on the premise that investigations such as these can lead to a deeper understanding of what aesthetic practices and theories around the world have in common and how their perspectives, conceptual frames, concerns, and modes of discourse differ. And this inaugural volume is definitely filled with interesting insights and suggestions for further inquiry. One hopes that it will be the first in a long series of such volumes.


1998 © Phil Alperson

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