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The Isolation of the ASA
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Alex Neill

The history of the ASA, as Lydia Goehr has documented,1 is in part the history of a debate about whether aesthetics is properly thought of as analogous to psychology, inasmuch as that although born of philosophy, it is capable of becoming an independent discipline, with its own methods and standards; or whether it is better thought of as analogous to metaphysics or ethics, that is, as a field of philosophy. Indeed, the very existence of the ASA can be explained largely in terms of the fact that several of its founding fathers were convinced that the former position is the right one, and that the emerging discipline, as they saw it, needed its own association to foster its development: just as philosophy had the APA, aesthetics would have what came to be called the ASA.

For a variety of reasons, however, the view that aesthetics is properly conceived as a field of philosophy seems to have emerged as dominant, at least in the Society and its Journal (though questions about the boundaries of aesthetics continue to be raised regularly at meetings of the former and in the pages of the latter). And the ASA in consequence occupies a rather special position: other than the philosophy of science, I know of no other general area of philosophy that has its own national association or society. Even if I’m wrong about that, aesthetics as a field of philosophy is nonetheless distinctive in virtue of having its own national association (and indeed, associations, beyond the USA).

It’s clear that in many ways, the existence of the ASA has been a hugely positive factor in the development of philosophical aesthetics, and the loyalty and affection that it inspires in its members is striking. There’s more to this than the fact that its meetings afford great opportunities to have some good dinners with some nice people in some interesting places – though it’s true that they do, and doubtless that’s a not insignificant part of the reason that so many of us attend the meetings so regularly. For all sorts of reasons, a person working in aesthetics is often (perhaps indeed typically) the only one in his/her department (whether of philosophy or otherwise) doing so. An epistemologist or philosopher of mind, even if s/he is the only so to speak “official” representative of that area of philosophy in a department, is very likely to find that his or her main research interests overlap considerably with those of colleagues working in other areas of philosophy; but this may well not be the case for a person whose main interests are in aesthetics. (And even more so if the person is not working in a philosophy department.) One of the most positive functions of the ASA is that its meetings provide a forum in which such isolated aestheticians can be heard by others whose research interests do overlap with theirs. And this is important not just for the individuals in question, but for the development of the field itself: the chances of a new line of research gathering momentum and amounting to anything serious are much greater if the people working on it know of and have the opportunity to talk to each other than they are if each is working in isolation.

Now it might be wondered why we need to travel to dedicated ASA meetings for this; couldn’t such a forum be provided by special sessions on aesthetics at APA meetings, such as those arranged by the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts? But here it’s important to note that ASA meetings provide a forum in which people can talk about things that it’s very hard to see getting on to any APA program, even as part of a session or group meeting devoted to aesthetics – I’m thinking, for example, of talks I’ve heard at ASA meetings on the aesthetics of laundry, and of aquaria, and of cosmetic surgery. The reason that such topics would be unlikely to appear on an APA program is doubtless that they are not obviously (which is not just to say not) philosophical, and often involve people whose background is not in philosophy. But that is again to the point: because the ASA offers a home, so to speak, to scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, our meetings facilitate the forging of connections between (people working in) philosophical aesthetics and (people working in) the arts, art history, art theory and so on. And given that aesthetics, at its most as well as at its least obviously philosophical moments, needs to be genuinely informed by work in such cognate areas, the diversity of the audience that one can expect at an ASA meeting, but would be unlikely to encounter at the APA, is in itself potentially very valuable.

There’s another very clear function that the ASA fulfils, which is crucial to the development of the field and also helps to explain why so many of us feel such loyalty to it. This is the function of supporting and mentoring younger scholars, many of whom first start coming to meetings as graduate students. My own early experience of the Society seems to have been entirely typical: people were friendly and welcoming, and I was very quickly made to feel a part of things – and not just part of the Society, but part of the field itself. I’ve heard this said of their introduction to the Society by many people. Aesthetics has not been a very fashionable field of philosophy for many years, if it ever was, and we don’t have the luxury of being able to assume that a good proportion of the brightest and best of each generation of philosophers will independently gravitate towards it. If aesthetics is to flourish, then good new scholars need to be actively encouraged to work in the field – and this is something that the ASA does well.

One might continue to reflect on the respects in which the existence of the ASA has been a positive factor in the development of philosophical aesthetics; I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. But it’s worth also reflecting a bit on whether the effect of having its own national association has been entirely positive for aesthetics.

One set of reasons for wondering whether it has been stems, perhaps ironically, from the very success of the Society as a supportive network for scholars working in aesthetics, and of its Journal as an organ for the publication of their work. The fact that the Society’s meetings offer us an informed, supportive, in disciplinary terms diverse, and convivial audience means that for many of us, those meetings are our first choice of venue in which to present our work, and the JAAC the first choice of journal in which to publish it. Hence relatively few of us are seen regularly at APA meetings, where aesthetics, partly in consequence of that, is relatively rarely on the program. This has some potentially damaging results, some of the potential of which has arguably already been fulfilled. Let me gesture – and I don’t have space to do any more than that – at just four. First, it is part of the reason that other philosophers, for many of whom the APA is the main professional meeting, typically know very little about what is happening in aesthetics. As such it further contributes to the fact that aesthetics appears so rarely on APA programs; and it helps to sustain if not to reinforce the old prejudice that aesthetics is very much a marginal area of philosophy – and all that goes with that prejudice in terms of the place of aesthetics in graduate training, the paucity of jobs in aesthetics, and so on.

Second, I suspect that the relative scarcity of aesthetics and aestheticians at the APA is an important part of the reason that we get very little of the “horizontal input,” so to speak, that is found in other areas of philosophy. For example, an epistemologist who drops in on an APA session on ethics may discover that his or her own work is more relevant to issues in ethics than s/he had realised, with the result that s/he starts to read and write on the latter. My sense is that this sort of “cross-fertilization” plays a significant role in the development of some of the other areas of philosophy, and virtually no role in the development of aesthetics – not least because sessions on aesthetics are so thin on the ground anywhere other than at ASA meetings (or those of other national aesthetics associations). Aesthetics is almost certainly poorer as a result.

Third, if aesthetics is isolated from philosophy in these structural ways, as it were, we might wonder whether it can avoid being cut off from philosophy in terms of knowledge, methodology and standards. Might the supportive and nurturing aspect of the ASA also have the effect of encouraging a lack of concern, or even self-deception, about whether we are meeting the standards of the discipline? I’m not suggesting that standards in aesthetics are to be judged simply in terms of whatever happen to be the current standards of the dominant fields of philosophy at any particular time; but in an isolated environment, it can become too easy to dismiss legitimate concerns as merely symptomatic of a tendency towards, say, “logic-chopping” or “logocentrism.”

Finally, by way of anecdote, one senior member of the Society mentioned to me recently that s/he wonders whether had s/he not become quite so involved in the ASA, had s/he maintained a more regular participation in other associations and meetings, s/he might have been a more capable philosopher, not least in virtue of having been exposed to more variety in philosophy. One negative aspect of the ASA’s otherwise valuable and highly effective function of nurturing and encouraging scholars in aesthetics, in short, may be to facilitate a sort of drift into narrowness.

So, I suggest, it’s worth considering whether the very attractiveness of the ASA may not have had, and be continuing to have, the effect of helping to isolate aesthetics from the main body of philosophy. The ASA is a organisation with real and very significant virtues, but if the appeal of those virtues has the effect of seducing aestheticians and so aesthetics away from the main body of philosophy, the vision of some of our Society’s founders – the vision of aesthetics as a discipline with its own standards and methodologies, independent of philosophy – may yet be realised by default. Those of us who think that this would be a bad thing should perhaps reflect on whether we are doing what we can to ensure that aesthetics has a life outside as well as within the ASA.

1. Lydia Goehr, “The Institutionalization of a Discipline: a Retrospective of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the American Society for Aesthetics, 1939-1992,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51 (1993): 99-121.

2004 © Alex Neill

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