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Review of Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art
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Matthew Kieran, ed., Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Blackwell, 2006)

Reviewed by Christy Mag Uidhir

The Contemporary Debates in Philosophy series is designed both to survey the central issues in specific philosophical fields as well as to allow the reader to engage immediately with the particular opposing positions within those fields. Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art is an in the main well-executed entry into the series, offering essays by authors immediately recognizable in and out of aesthetics (Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, and George Dickie among others). All of the essays are original contributions, making this volume essential for any aesthetics collection.

Of course, both philosophical aesthetics and the philosophy of art could easily support their own volumes of the Contemporary Debate series, and as such, any anthology addressing both aesthetics and philosophy of art runs the risk of either offering selections that trade only in the overlapping areas of the two fields or representing the fields as entirely disparate. This volume, for the most part, successfully navigates between the two extremes. Although the selections in philosophical aesthetics by and large address aesthetic concerns in art, this, I think, merely reflects trends in the contemporary literature. Overall, Kieran provides a good starting point from which to become acquainted with the variety of issues in the field and a handy tool for immediate access to the principal and often contrary positions in aesthetics and philosophy of art.

There are few problems, however, with Kieran’s choices of debates and selections. On the aesthetics side, he completely neglects the increasingly popular field of environmental aesthetics. By far the weakest section of the volume is “In What Does True Beauty Consist?” Traditional philosophical approaches to beauty are few and far between in the contemporary literature, largely being replaced by issues in environmental aesthetics (natural beauty). Additionally, the contributions comprising this section, Marcia Eaton’s “Beauty and Ugliness In and Out of Context” and Carolyn Korsmeyer’s “Terrible Beauties”, simply are not at odds with one another, so the entire section seems conspicuously out of place in a volume dedicated to philosophical debate. This section should have been replaced with one on environmental aesthetics or perhaps a section on empirical approaches to beauty.

Given that each section in this volume is supposed to be self-contained, redundancy shouldn’t be an issue. Kieran devotes a section to the role of the imagination in art and another section to emotional responses to fiction. These two issues overlap considerably, and since these occupy adjacent sections in the volume, the overlap is even more striking. Although the Tamar Gendler and Karson Kovakovich’s “Genuine Rational Fictional Emotions” and Derek Matravers’ “The Challenge of Irrationalism, and How Not to Meet It” are quite good and well-argued pieces, the reader should focus more on Currie’s essential “Anne Bronte and the Uses of the Imagination” and Jonathan Weinberg and Aaron Meskin’s challenging response to Currie, “Imagine That!” A more welcome addition on the emotions in art would have been the exchange between Stephen Davies and Peter Kivy regarding the emotions in music.

The volume also noticeably overlooks issues in the metaphysics of art, such as ontology of art and metaphysics of fiction. These issues (as well as work in metaphor) bridge the gap between aesthetics and other philosophical disciplines and help demonstrate that aesthetics isn’t an entirely insular. The volume does, however, contain an interesting section on pictorial representation. Dominic Lopes’ excellent piece “The Domain of Depiction” and Robert Hopkins’ “The Speaking Image” stand independent from philosophy of art and could easily be selections for any volume on perception or representation. Lastly, given the contentious field of artwork interpretation, Robert Stecker’s “Interpretation and the Problem of the Relevant Intention” and Daniel O. Nathan’s “Art, Meaning, and Artist’s Meaning” are odd choices for the section “Is Artistic Intention Relevant to the Interpretation of Artworks”. Stecker and Nathan take a soft stance on the contributory power of artist’s intentions, both concluding that artist’s intentions are in some part contributory but not wholly. Including a piece defending a strong version of actual intentionalism would have better rounded out this section.

A significant draw of this volume is the wonderful contributions by Stephen Davies and Jerrold Levinson on artistic expression. Davies in “Artistic Expression and the Hard Case of Pure Music” argues that pure music is expressive in virtue of a resemblance relation between the music and the characteristics of actual expressive states. Whereas, Levinson in “Musical Expressiveness as Hearability-as-expression” contends that musical expression is a result of hearing-as some personified expressive state. Additionally, the section on Aesthetic Principles offers engaging and insightful selections by Alan Goldman and George Dickie. Goldman in “There are no Aesthetic Principles” claims that there is an insurmountable tension between what it is to be a principle and aesthetic evaluation such that aesthetic principles can never be epistemically objective. In “Iron, Leather, and Critical Principles,” Dickie takes a familiar Humean line in arguing for objective aesthetic principles.

The volume’s best feature, oddly enough, is Kieran’s brief introduction, itself warranting the purchase price. In this introduction, Kieran describes the various methods of approaching topics in aesthetics and philosophy of art. The four main methods of approach, according to Kieran, are metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, and phenomenological. Given this then, the proper way to engage in philosophical debate is to make sure that the purported opposing views actually occupy the same methodological ground. Furthermore, a tidy way of divvying up the field is to understand the field as a triad, dealing with issues in object nature and identity, creation conditions, and appreciation. Unfortunately, this astute assessment of the field is more a statement on how the field should proceed rather than a description of how it actually does proceed. Far too often epistemology and phenomenology become the illicit work horses of metaphysics, and again far too often arguments ignore Kieran’s recommendations, moving freely and detrimentally between methods, creating debates where there are none and masking debates that should be apparent. It should be telling that many of the debates contained in this volume fail to heed Kieran’s advice.

All in all, Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art is a useful volume for those interested in getting a feel for the terrain. In addition to the original contributions, Kieran provides after each section a handy reference guide for further reading. This volume in conjunction with some of the selections Kieran recommends for further reading would be a solid foundation for an upper-level undergraduate or a lower-level graduate course in aesthetics.


2008 © Christy Mag Uidhir

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