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Berys Gaut

When I learned in 2002 that I had been elected to be a Trustee of the American Society for Aesthetics, I was surprised and delighted. It was not quite clear to me what Trustees were supposed to do, but I was sure that to be elected a Trustee was a great honour, and I duly felt greatly honoured. At my first meeting of the Board of Trustees, we went carefully through the lengthy and detailed agenda, considered reports about the various activities of the Society and its finances, weighed up who should be nominated as future Trustees and as President, and debated various policy issues that had arisen in the course of our discussion. The care with which the Board considered the matters before it was impressive, and was afterwards rewarded with an equally impressive dinner. Swept up by the occasion, I inquired of one fellow Trustee how many votes I had polled in the election for Trustee. “I don’t know,” came the reply, “but you can be sure it wasn’t many, since hardly any one votes in the Trustee elections.”

Quite apart from my flattened ego, evidence rapidly mounted that the Society’s inner workings were not of compelling interest to most of its members. The ASA annual business meeting is normally held in a cavernous room; and at these occasions one can spot a smattering of members scattered across the space, some singly, some gathered into small groups, as if huddling for protection from the looming emptiness. Mass participation politics this is not. And, as I come to the end of my three-year term as Trustee, I can report that during my term so far, not one member has approached me with a proposal that they wanted me to present to the Board. Though I am still not sure about the role of a Trustee, I assume that one of its functions is to represent the members of the Society. But it is hard to represent someone who won’t express his or her views: talents in clairvoyance were not, I recall, a requirement for election as Trustee. And it is not as if I, or any of my fellow Trustees and other officers of the Society, are shrinking violets, impossible to contact. You can find all of our names neatly arrayed in a column on the front inside cover of JAAC. True, our email addresses are not listed, but our institutional affiliations are, and an adroit bit of googling will conjure us up onto your computer screen, with contact details attached.

Maybe it’s not hard to convince you that most members are not interested in the official workings of the Society. But why, you might wonder, should they be? With all those old friends to meet, why bother attending a business meeting at the conference? Business meetings are not famed, after all, for their fervid excitement. The answer to this question is that you have in the democratic structure of the Society, its officers, its journal and its reserves, a set of resources that are of great value, that are being well used, but that could be even better deployed were more members to participate actively in the official life of the association, by way of providing feedback, suggestions and proposals.

Let me give some examples. A concern that I have heard expressed is about whether the Society is recruiting enough younger members, and about the difficulties often experienced by young aestheticians in making the transition from completing the PhD to securing a permanent teaching position in a university system that does not regard aesthetics as a core, or even important, part of philosophy. Now the ASA already does a good deal to address this concern: besides its welcoming and friendly attitude to graduates and younger philosophers, remarked upon by Alex Neill in the previous column in this series, it also has more formal means to encourage younger aestheticians. For instance, each year the Society makes available travel awards to help students, who have had their papers accepted, attend the Annual Meeting; and the John Fisher Memorial Prize is awarded to the best paper submitted by those with newly minted doctorates, with the winning paper being guaranteed publication in JAAC. But could more be done?

There are a number of possibilities. A modest one would be to increase the grants available to graduate students who have had their papers accepted for the Annual Meeting. The $500 currently awarded is extremely useful, but given the luxurious ambiance in which we are wont to wallow at our annual conference, it’s unlikely to cover all of their costs; and for graduate students who wing in from outside North America, there are international airfares to pay as well. Should we enhance the Society’s largesse so as to encourage more graduate aestheticians to attend? Perhaps by so doing we might even entice some philosophy students whose central interests are not in aesthetics to submit a paper, and so lure them into a more lasting interest in the field. (Surveying our surroundings at the conference, we might try “Become an aesthetician, and live like royalty!” or perhaps “If you think this is good, you ought to see our houses.”)

Or maybe a more organisational solution would help. At the first Board meeting I attended, one Trustee remarked on the number of us with gray hair around the table. (Actually, I was quite pleased that the person had noticed that I still had some hair left.) The point was well taken. Should we aim to nominate for election as Trustees, in addition to the more senior figures we have recently tended to choose, some younger and more junior ones as well? By so doing, we might hope to hear represented the views and concerns of those who are less advanced in their careers, and so make the Society more aware of these matters.

There are other, more expansive possibilities. In another of my roles, I am Chair of the Management Committee of the Philosophical Quarterly, a journal not too dissimilar in its circulation and revenues from JAAC. The Committee recently decided to institute a Philosophical Quarterly post-doctoral fellowship, to be held in Scotland where the journal has its home, tenable for two or three years. Part of our reason for doing this is that we wanted to help the cause of philosophy in Scotland; we also hoped to help philosophers who had their PhD but perhaps had not yet acquired a permanent teaching position. Funding this fellowship will strip out a very substantial proportion of the Quarterly’s accumulated reserves, but we reckon that the money would be better spent in this way than have it accumulating in our coffers. Should the ASA consider funding a similar fellowship, with the aim of encouraging aesthetics and younger aestheticians? The Society’s reserves are considerably larger than the Quarterly’s, but so are its expenses. Yet I would guess that a similar calculation as that undertaken by the Quarterly, making sure that the journal had, say, two years expenses in reserve, lest bad times be around the corner, might demonstrate a similar ability to fund a two or three year fellowship.

There are differences, of course, between the two operations: notably, the ASA is an association with a journal, whereas the Quarterly does not have an association attached to it. Being an association with its attendant conferences increases expenses, and might under some circumstances expose the ASA to liabilities which the Quarterly would not have. On the other hand, being an association gives the ASA extra security in its revenues, since philosophers have an incentive to take out and maintain individual subscriptions so as to participate in the life of the Society. Still, the similarities between the two operations are more striking than the differences. Academic journals are highly profitable, have a more or less stable number of subscribers, possess considerable pricing power, and get their cash upfront through the payment of subscriptions. Publishers get goose bumps even thinking about this kind of operation. Indeed, all of us who are responsible for running journals have had the experience of being pursued by publishers eager to poach our journal from its current publishing home. Journals’ revenues, then, are generally stable and secure, and JAAC has in addition a first-rate contract with its publisher, skillfully negotiated by Philip Alperson and Curtis Carter. So on the face of it, it would not be unreasonable for the ASA to consider instituting a fellowship similar to that of the Quarterly.

Now you may, of course, think that the ASA should do none of these things. Perhaps you would deny that there is any particular problem in encouraging younger philosophers to enter aesthetics, or maybe you think that the particular proposals mooted would be ineffective or expose the Society to too much financial risk. And you may be right about this – though, as you will gather, I think that there is much to be said in favour of these suggestions. However, my main point in mooting them is to show that there are some important and interesting issues to discuss about how the ASA might further promote the cause of aesthetics. You will doubtless be able to think of some as well. The ASA is blessed with a democratic structure, in which all its officers are elected and hold their posts for a set period of time. The people who run it are effective and conscientious (and as an extra bonus include some very fine philosophers). The journal is a major asset and the Society is well funded. The ASA is, and has been, a powerful force in promoting the cause of aesthetics, not just in North America, but also in the wider Anglo-American philosophical community, and even beyond. Yet it could be even more effective were more of its membership actively involved in its official life, by voting, turning up to business meetings, expressing their views as to what are the leading issues facing the Society, and by putting forward proposals to the Board as to how it might best use its organisational and financial resources to address these issues.

Of course, by this I mean serious proposals, ones supported by people willing to participate in whatever hard work is required to implement them. We are all prone, especially over a few drinks at one of those enticing dinners at the conference, to moan about the state of whatever has caught our scandalized attention. But it is one thing to lament, and another to act. Yet those lamentations could be the source of actions. ASA members are a lively and varied bunch, and generate many ideas that could be implemented to benefit the Society and the wider cause of aesthetics. If one is responsible for running an organisation, it can sometimes be hard to consider what else one could and should be doing, given that the business at hand may be pressing and is the necessary focus of one’s attention. (Indeed, the original idea for the Quarterly fellowship came from outside the Management Committee; and the same is true of some other initiatives that the journal has pursued in recent years, such as Quarterly conferences.) It helps a lot, then, to have active, engaged members, who are interested in the official life of the Society, and who come to it with ideas and proposals as to how it might further its mission.

What this all comes down to, in the end, is this: the next time you are confronted with the tedium of a business meeting, or the chore of voting for a Trustee or other officer of the Society, or have a good idea which could be implemented by the Society but which would take some time, effort and energy to put together, don’t be put off by the tedium or effort involved. The Society will flourish by virtue of its active membership, employing the considerable resources, organisational, financial and of personnel, which are available to it. The ASA is a great force for the good, and it can be made even more effective. To purloin the title of the column that regularly appears at the end of these pages, we will all benefit if we become Active Aestheticians.

2004 © Berys Gaut

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