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Introduction to Philosophy of Art and Literature
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James Hamilton

Initially, it may be beneficial to think of Philosophy as the study of the various role(s) of reason in our lives and in characteristically human activities. Among the activities that are characteristic of our species is that group of practices that belong to or are related in some way to what we call “art.” This is a pretty complicated group of practices:

  • some of these practices are productive: painting, composing, sculpting, writing, drafting, performing, focusing the camera
  • among the productive practices there is also a great variety: what, for example, do writing a poem, painting a portrait, welding a sculpture, performing a play, performing a symphony, singing the blues, rapping, designing a building, and making a movie all have in common besides the fact that we regard them all, more or less seriously, as belonging to that group of practices we call “the arts”?
  • some of these practices center around the reception of that which is produced: attending a performance, reading a score, reading a poem, hearing a poem read, walking attentively through a museum – on one level – and, on another, discussing what one has seen or heard, writing a description of a performance, evaluating what was seen and heard, classifying a performance, explaining a performance, describing the place of a painting in a certain period of art history, and so on.

We will work one simplification for the course by focusing the discussion only on the so-called “visual arts” (although we will ask what makes this grouping coherent, if anything). Corresponding to the complicated array of things to consider when thinking about the arts and their place(s) in our lives is an equally complicated story about the role(s) of reason in each of the various practices that make up what we might call the “world of art.” And it is this that is the subject matter for this course.

What should you hope to get from the course? One thing you might hope to get is a fuller acquaintance with the many aspects of art. (In this way, perhaps, the course can contribute to a general education.) But mostly you should hope to learn some basic features and begin to acquire the basic skills of philosophical inquiry. To do this, you will have to learn to read in a new way – I will call it “reading for argument” – and you will have to be willing to risk writing in a mode that is unfamiliar, and may be uncomfortable, but that is (if anything is) the single most important skill required for doing philosophy well. You should not expect to acquire full competence in the skills in one semester (any more than you should expect to be able to play tennis very competitively after only one semester of PE). But you should expect to be able to recognize real skill at it and to begin to have a sense for when a philosopher has gone deeply into an issue rather than merely skimming the surface.


Alperson, Philip, ed. The Philosophy of the Visual Arts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.


Aug 22: Introduction
Aug 24: Stolnitz, pp 7-14
Aug 28: Stolnitz...

Aug 29: Munro, pp 15-29
Aug 31: Munro...
Sep 2: Dickie, pp 30-39

Sep 5: No Class: Labor Day
Sep 7: Dickie... (first paper topics assigned)
Sep 9: Croce, pp 40-50

Sep 12: Croce...
Sep 14: Lessing, pp 51-55
Sep 16: Lessing... (first paper due)

Sep 19: Plato, pp 63-71
Sep 21: Plato...
Sep 23: Gombrich, pp 72-87

Sep 26: Gombrich...
Sep 28: Gombrich...
Sep 30: Goodman, pp 88-101

Oct 3: Goodman... (second paper topics assigned)
Oct 5: Goodman...
Oct 7: Walton, pp 102-113

Oct 10: Walton...
Oct 12: Ross, pp 114-118
Oct 14: Ross... (second paper due)

Oct 17: Clark, pp 235-247
Oct 19: Clark...
Oct 21: Berger, pp 248-259

Oct 24: Berger...
Oct 26: Nochlin, pp 260-270
Oct 28: Nochlin...

Oct 31: Kracauer, pp 306-318
Nov 2: Kracauer... (third paper topic due)
Nov 4: Kracauer...

Nov 7: Arnheim, pp 319-324
Nov 9: Arnheim...
Nov 11: Robinson, pp 481-489

Nov 14: Robinson...
Nov 16: Goodman, pp 505-512
Nov 18: Goodman...

Nov 23: Goodman... (third paper due)

Nov 28: Sparshott, pp 563-567
Nov 30: Sparshott...
Dec 2: Bouissac, pp 582-591

Dec 5: Bouissac...
Dec 7: Ducasse, pp 619-624
Dec 9: Ducasse...

This reading schedule is fairly extensive even though no single passage is longer than fourteen or so pages long. And, as you are no doubt aware, unexpected events that will impact this schedule are to be expected. Therefore, adjustments will be made. It will help if you are paying attention when they are made.

Course Requirements

Three papers and a take-home final examination constitute the written work for this course. The schedule is as follows:

First Paper 2-3 pages, typed (double-spaced); topics assigned by Sept. 7; due Sept. 16; this paper is worth approximately 10 % of the course grade.

Second Paper 4-6 pages, typed (double-spaced); topics assigned Oct. 3; due Oct. 14.; this paper is worth approximately 20 % of the course grade.

Third Paper 8-10 pages, typed (double-spaced); topics cleared by Nov. 2; due Nov. 23; you are responsible for developing your own topic, in consultation with your instructor. (Some suggestions will be given on October 31); this paper is worth approximately 30 % of the course grade.

Take-Home Final Exam questions will be handed out on Dec. 7.; due Dec. 12, in Eisenhower 216 by 4 pm; this set of short papers is worth approximately 25 % of the course grade.

Discussion the remaining 15 %, or so, of the course grade is to be determined by in-class participation. You need not strive for brilliance in the discussion. You should aim at showing both that you have read the material and that you are trying to understand what we are attempting to do with the reading.

more Meetings

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10/24/2020 » 10/25/2020
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