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For the Ghettoization of Aesthetics
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Roger Seamon

There is some dismay among aestheticians at what has been called the ghettoization of aesthetics, i.e. its relative isolation within analytic philosophy. The most visible signs of this are the ASA and other national societies, the JAAC, and the BJA, since it seems that no other area of philosophy has both a separate society, dedicated journals which are the best in the field, and a peripheral presence in the APA, in other words, where the action takes place outside the larger community. In a recent ASA Newsletter Alex Neill worried about whether this means that aesthetics is “cut off from philosophy in terms of knowledge, methodology, and standards,” and in a recent issue of the JAAC George Dickie lamented the isolation, and blamed it, wittily, on Monroe Beardsley’s and John Fisher’s making it much easier, many years ago, to publish in the JAAC. The worry is not new, as Dickie says that “At a session during the 1999 American Society for Aesthetics meeting, it was lamented that aestheticians had ghettoized their work by publishing only in the JAAC, The British Journal of Aesthetics, the Journal of Aesthetic Education, and the like and not in philosophy journals generally.” Neill argues that the isolation is a consequence of the ASA’s success in providing various benefits for aestheticians that they would otherwise lack, and argues that we might profit by closer ties to the other branches of philosophy. I want to argue that the isolation is intrinsic to the discipline and also good for it.

When I told my idea to Peter Kivy, he suggested, with the irony that the conceit merits, that Plato might be the culprit, in other words that not we aestheticians but the “other” is responsible for our isolation. Along the same lines, but more plausibly, it may be that the positivist heritage of analytic philosophy has created a prejudice against aesethetics. But both ideas mean that the marginalization exists not because of the advantages and delights of being among one’s own kind, but, as usual, because of rejection by a dominant group. What then would need explanation is how aesthetics has managed to maintain even its marginal position, and in fact Francis Sparshott has half-seriously suggested that Kant’s insistence on the necessity of the third critique has meant that although philosophers would like to get rid of aesthetics they “cannot without an uneasy conscience, so aesthetics cannot be dislodged from its foothold on Parnassus.” In other words, we have been invited to the party by one spouse, but told to stay home by the other, and so make a little party of our own on the lawn.

Perhaps, but there may be some good reasons why aesthetics has the position it does vis-a-vis analytic philosophy. Moreover, I think that position is largely responsible for the past half-century or so being the silver age of aesthetics, in which aestheticians tried to refine and make conceptually coherent what emerged from the heroic efforts of the great German theorists. (Other fates for aesthetics might be the sometimes useful, usually skewed pronouncements of artists and their critical promoters, or the over-reaching, art-diluting claims of the modern continentals.) What results are persistent efforts, despite recurring scepticism, to rationalize the art-faith bequeathed to us by the golden age, as the conceptual problems that are implicit in that faith are explored. Some results are, inter alia, to re-animate lines of inquiry (Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe) alter tradition through encounters with current practice (Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace), and redress balances (Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored).

But what might it be about aesthetics that has led to its isolation? Here is my suggestion. The theory of art often takes the form, more or less explicit, of a defense and definition. Aesthetics is, deep down, advocacy and construction, i.e. it is constitutive, at least in part, of what it studies, and this differs from the usual self-understanding of analytic philosophy The model here is Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he makes mimesis the defining characteristic of poetry (and not writing in verse) and then tries to ground the significance of this new category in an account of the function of the highest mimetic art. Aristotle then spends most of his treatise on deriving the principles of good practice from the best examples; in other words he wants to improve or at least maintain the breed. Theorists of art have, of course, long since quit trying to tell artists the rules governing their practice. (Romanticism saw to that, though the impulse gets diverted into studies of creativity.) Instead they attend to the “rules” for appreciation and criticism: Understanding Poetry (and the formalist theory that it derives from) replaces Poetics. Almost all modern art theory is a guide to appreciation and criticism (however indirectly), for it tells us how to think about art, what to attend to and what not, and what is especially “aesthetic” or “arty” about works of art. The subtitle of Beardsley’s Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism makes this explicit.

This means that aesthetics is not suspended between Plato’s “no” and Kant’s “yes,” but between the practice of philosophy and the practices of the arts. It is a form of meta-criticism and as such contributes to the self-understanding of various practices, which in turn can alter them. Consider the fate of pottery. As well, aesthetics is strongly tied a belief in the value of art and its centrality to civilized life. We are dedicated fans of and thus participants in the practices we analyse, explain, justify, etc.

Alas, these practices are bafflingly complex. Artists know very well how to do what they do, but what they are doing (representing? expressing? designing?) and what makes for success are very hard to say. Even the very notions of art and the fine arts, which are crucial to modern aesthetics, are now taken to be historical constructs, and so, a la Beckett, we can’t go on, we must go on. Thus, continuity of regard replaces essence, Sparshott calls his work The Theory of the Arts, a clever hedge, and Peter Kivy titles a book Philosophies of Arts, though the arts attended to are likely to be those that constitute “the modern system” of the fine arts, which underpinned the concept of art in the first place. Moreover, the boundaries of arts and the concept of fine art are no more stable than art itself. and the conceptual foundations of artistic practices are hard to determine and change over time, just like the arts. In ethics, on the other hand, there are a few crucial and persistent positions, however complex the arguments surrounding them have become, so that it makes sense to talk about the major ethical theories. While there are, in fact, some rather striking convergences in aesthetic theory – for example, many introductory texts are organized around mimetic, expressive, and formalist theories – each of these takes various forms, and even then there is much left over and little agreement about what that might be. Only those who combine love of art, tolerance of messiness, and also demand for conceptual clarity will find aesthetics compelling. It is the commitment to a subject matter we have invented, a puzzling set of somehow related practices, that accounts for our isolation, and it is no wonder that there is some intuitive scepticism, if not prejudice, among analytic philosophers generally.

My fear is that increasing integration with the profession would lead to a scientization of the field and abandonment of the commitment to the arts that the heroic tradition from Kant on bequeathed to us. Baumgarten wanted to find a logic of taste, but once that effort failed the impulse became empirical. If we cannot know the rational basis for judgments of taste, then we can at least know their causes. This is a bad idea for aesthetics and its relationship with the arts. When that course is pursued the arts merely furnish examples of, say, perceptual phenonena that occur in many other contexts, or we find out the psycho-biological causes of artmaking, which is very different from either making art, appreciating it, or elucidating and thus affecting the conceptual world that governs both activities. Of course, as in Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, the perceptual phenomena revealed by psychologists can illuminate what goes in the arts, but it is crucial which way the interest flows.

The marginal nature of aesthetics within analytic philosophy is a function of its subject matter. If the ASA were to become merely a forum for artists and critics to theorize, it would lose its foothold in the philosophical community, which was, for a time, what happened in the Canadian Society for Aesthetics. If, on the other hand, aesthetics aspires to the condition of science or uses works of art as mere examples of ubiquitous phenomena, it will lose its vital connection to the arts, as various puzzles get distributed to various disciplines and the art-center dissolves. My guess is that our commitment is too deep for that, and so all we can and should do is learn to live with our fate, awkward as it sometimes is. No doubt we can fidget a bit to get more comfortable, but that seems to me about it.

2006 © Roger Seamon

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