Aesthetics in the Academy: Survey Results in Brief
Dominic McIver Lopes
During the fall of 1998 the American Society for Aesthetics conducted
a survey of the chairs of philosophy departments in North America
in order to gauge the status of aesthetics (or the philosophy of
art) in the American academy. In particular, the survey was designed
to ascertain what proportion have philosophers of art on staff,
what aesthetics courses are offered, what the demand for those courses
is, and how many graduate departments are training students with
a competence in aesthetics.
1. The Survey and Its Reliability
The survey was sent to 368 philosophy department chairs, including
every department with a doctoral program in philosophy and a random
selection of other departments. Respondents were assured that their
responses would be kept confidential and reported only as
One hundred and fifty departments returned the survey – a very
high response rate of 41 percent. The response rate of the departments
with doctoral programs was 85 percent, ensuring a reliable picture
of the status of aesthetics in graduate schools.
With one exception, the responding institutions appear representative.
Whether categorized by geographical location, type (private or public),
size of overall institutional enrolment or size of enrolment in philosophy,
they correspond closely to the benchmark provided by the APA’s much
larger 1994 survey of Philosophy in America (Schacht 1997: 2-5).
The exception concerns two-year colleges. According to the APA
survey, fully one quarter of US colleges and universities offering
philosophy courses have no degree in philosophy (Schacht 1997: 2).
However, only three percent of departments responding to the ASA
survey fall in this class. We should keep this in mind as we consider
the results of the survey. For example, it’s plausible that there
are fewer philosophers specializing in aesthetics at such institutions,
so that the survey overestimates the fraction of philosophers specializing
in aesthetics. At the same time, we may be less worried about the
representation of aesthetics in these departments, which will tend
to be very small.
2. Aesthetics Courses
One purpose of the survey is to gauge what might be described as
the demand for aesthetics – that is, aesthetics teaching. On
the whole, this demand appears to be very healthy, indeed increasing
Aesthetics Outside Philosophy
Half the institutions surveyed have a course in aesthetics taught
outside philosophy, usually in fine art, literature, film studies
or music, though some courses are also taught in departments of
architecture, anthropology, sociology, psychology and education.
One might suppose that there is a relationship between aesthetics offerings
in the philosophy department and aesthetics offerings outside philosophy.
Aesthetics offerings in departments other than philosophy might sap
demand for a philosophy department’s aesthetics courses or it might
stimulate it. Tests were run to detect such a relationship.
Contrary to expectation, offerings outside philosophy are not a
factor determining whether or not aesthetics is offered within philosophy
or, if it is offered, how often it is offered. The teaching of aesthetics
outside philosophy neither stimulates nor dampens the teaching of
aesthetics within philosophy.
Even so, the survey data indicate that there is widespread demand for
courses in aesthetics across the university curriculum. Aesthetics may
be one of philosophy’s most successful exports.
Aesthetics in Philosophy Courses
Sixty-three percent of departments report that aesthetics is covered
sometimes or often in their lower division philosophy courses.
This interest carries forward to the upper division, where
topics in aesthetics are sometimes or often broached in non-aesthetics
courses in an astonishing nine of ten departments.
It would be no surprise to find aesthetics mentioned in historical
courses, especially courses in ancient philosophy, Hume, Kant, Hegel
and continental philosophy. But it appears that topics in aesthetics
also have a home in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language,
philosophy of mind, feminist philosophy, ethics and political theory.
Aesthetics is clearly extremely well integrated in the philosophy curriculum
in North America.
Is there a difference in the way aesthetics is integrated into the curriculum
in departments with different orientations? Aesthetics “sometimes” or
“often” pops up in non-aesthetics courses in 90 percent of analytically
and continentally-oriented departments alike, though it appears “often”
in courses offered by seven times as many continental departments as
analytic ones. In historically-oriented departments, which are overwhelmingly
undergraduate, topics in aesthetics are broached in just over half of
Undergraduate Aesthetics Courses
Forty-five percent of philosophy departments offer at least one lower
division course in aesthetics and 11 percent offer more than one.
The average enrolment is 27 students at an average rate of one and a
half sections per year.
Only 14 percent of departments offer no upper division course in aesthetics.
Half offer one, a quarter offer two and one in ten offers three or more.
Of those departments with a course in philosophy, four in ten offer
a course at least once a year, a third every other year, and quarter
less frequently. The median enrolment in upper division aesthetics courses
is 17 and the average is 22 students.
For purposes of comparison, this distribution spectrum resembles
those for offerings in epistemology and philosophy of science (Schacht
The vast majority (85 percent) of departments offering any course
in aesthetics offer a generic course. Of this group of 129 departments,
50 offer philosophy of literature, 20 the history of aesthetics,
18 philosophy of film, ten the philosophy of the visual arts, eight
feminist aesthetics and a handful each offer music aesthetics and
It should be noted that there is demand for these courses despite
the fact that almost no department requires an aesthetics course
for the major. Moreover, only one in seven departments offer aesthetics
courses that are required by majors outside philosophy – mostly
fine art and art history, with a few for music, architecture and
art education majors.
Indeed, one in five chairs report that their department does not offer
enough courses to meet current demand and 70 percent of these are planning
to offer more courses. That is, one department of every seven surveyed
plan to increase its offerings in aesthetics.
Three of four chairs report demand in these courses is steady. It is
increasing in 13 percent of departments and decreasing in nine percent.
This matches the APA’s data (Schacht 1997: 44). To put this in perspective,
compare it with the demand and demand trends for epistemology and philosophy
of science (Schacht 1997: 45-7).
In sum, aesthetics courses are offered regularly in most philosophy
departments – with a frequency comparable to other core courses in
philosophy. Aesthetics courses are also offered in great diversity.
Demand for theses courses is increasing moderately and a sizeable number
of departments have plans to increase offerings.
Graduate Aesthetics Courses
One in every three departments with a doctoral program offers no
aesthetics courses whatsoever at the graduate level but 39 percent
offer one course, 18 percent offer two and nine percent offer three
or more. Almost equal fractions offer a course every year, once
every two years and only occasionally (see Frequency of Offerings
This distribution correlates with the figures for the proportion
of faculty specializing in aesthetics in doctoral departments, discussed
This correlation is not inconsistent with the diversity of graduate
aesthetics course offerings, which approaches that of undergraduate
offerings. A generic course is taught in 31 departments, 21 offer
the history of aesthetics, eight offer philosophy of literature,
five offer philosophy of film, five offer feminist philosophy and
a handful offer a smattering of others. It is notable that history
of aesthetics is much stronger at the graduate level. This is due
to the number of graduate courses devoted to single historical figures.
Demand trends for graduate level courses are even higher than for
undergraduate courses (see Demand Trends above). Seventy-two percent
of chairs report demand as steady, but only seven percent report
it as declining and 22 percent report it as on the increase.
This is no surprise in view of the popularity among graduate students
of aesthetics. Fully half of doctoral departments have at least
one graduate student developing a competence in aesthetics and a
third have more than one. Half have at least one student writing
an MA or PhD dissertation related to aesthetics and a quarter have
more than one. Among the departments responding (85 percent of all
doctoral departments) there are 93 graduate students developing
a competence in aesthetics and 56 students writing dissertations
related to aesthetics.
3. Aesthetics Faculty
A Profile of Aesthetics Faculty in Philosophy Departments
The average number of resident faculty at the departments surveyed
is 7.8. The average proportion of faculty within these departments
who do at least some research in aesthetics is one in five.
One in four departments have a specialist in aesthetics and three
of every four departments have at least one full-time member who
is doing at least some research in aesthetics. Moreover, almost
half have more than one member doing some research in aesthetics.
Doctoral departments depart from this picture in two respects.
First, more departments have a specialist in aesthetics – almost
four in ten. Second, almost nine in ten have at least one member
doing some research in aesthetics. As noted above, departments that
do not have a specialist in aesthetics are more likely not to offer
a course in aesthetics. This probably reflects a reasonable reluctance
to offer graduate-level courses in a field not taught by specialists
in the field.
Incidentally, the chance that a department has representation in
aesthetics does not appear to be affected by its philosophical orientation.
An analytically-oriented department is as likely to have a member
who does work in aesthetics as a continentally-oriented or a balanced
Aesthetics Faculty: Trends
As noted, demand for aesthetics courses is increasing overall.
Is this matched by hiring trends?
During the past decade, one in four of the departments surveyed
lost an aesthetician. Of these, 42 percent have rehired in aesthetics
and 19 percent have plans to. In addition, one in ten departments
who have not lost an aesthetician plan to hire one.
Assuming that plans to hire are fulfilled, these numbers indicate
a very slight net rate of attrition of two percent of the
aesthetics professoriate every decade. However, taking into account
the margin of error for the survey, it is equally likely that the
aesthetics professoriate will probably remain close to its currents
Several main conclusions about aesthetics courses are warranted:
These conclusions suggest that additional hiring is needed in aesthetics.
First, as their chairs recognize, undergraduate departments must fill
current and projected demand for a wealth of aesthetics courses. Second,
graduate departments must also fill the demand for new candidates on
the job market with the ability to teach courses in aesthetics.
- There is wide coverage of aesthetics outside philosophy. This
does not affect demand for aesthetics courses offered by philosophy
- Aesthetics is extremely well integrated into the philosophy
curriculum, though somewhat less so in historically-oriented departments.
- There is a remarkable variety of aesthetics courses on offer
at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
- Demand for aesthetics courses is steady and increasing somewhat.
It matches demand for epistemology (a core course) and philosophy
of science (an important non-core course).
- At the graduate level, demand for aesthetics as an area of competence
or a dissertation topic is very healthy. Almost one in four departments
report an increase in demand for aesthetics.
- Many chairs would like to offer more aesthetics and a substantial
number have plans to.
- The philosophical orientation of departments is not a factor
in any of these facts, except that aesthetics courses are offered
in fewer departments with historical orientations.
Schacht, Richard (1997) Philosophy in America 1994: Summary
and Results. Newark: American Philosophical Association.