An Introduction to Aesthetics, Dabney Townsend (Blackwell).
Aesthetics: The Classic Readings, ed. David E. Cooper (Blackwell).
Aesthetics, along with, for instance, philosophy of religion and political philosophy, used to be considered one of the more outlying areas of the philosophical territory, remote from the centre of activity where epistemology and metaphysics were to be found. Some great philosophers turned their attention to the subject only late in their careers, and then often rather perfunctorily. Of the great trio of philosophical subjects, it seemed the principle was “Deal with truth first, then goodness; only then, if you have time, beauty”. Thus Hume wrote lengthily in the Treatise, and the two Enquiries, first on the questions of epistemology, then on moral philosophy, before he wrote his brief essay Of the Standard of Taste. Kant wrote his monumental first Critique, concerned with the great questions of epistemology and metaphysics, then the shorter, but still very substantial, second Critique, on morality. Only then, at the age of 66, did he write his much shorter Third Critique, The Critique of Judgement, which is (at least partly) concerned with problems of aesthetics. Other great philosophers contributed to the subject hardly or not at all: Descartes on Aesthetics or Berkeley on Aesthetics would be candidates for the world’s shortest books. And the same has continued to be true into the twentieth century as well. Few of the great names of analytic philosophy wrote anything at all about aesthetics. Wittgenstein contributed only briefly to the subject, but, (like Hume and Kant as well) enormously influentially, nevertheless.
But things are changing. The last thirty years have seen a profound difference in the way the subject of philosophy has been approached in the Anglo-American world. One widely noted symptom of this change has been in moral philosophy, where the huge explosion in the number of books on practical ethics and real life moral problems since about 1970 has made the subject, among other things, vastly more interesting and exciting then when it had to subsist on a diet of examples concerning the borrowing and lending of books and the division of puddings – the chief moral concerns, perhaps, of the Oxford and Cambridge dons who contributed to the subject.
Twentieth-century aesthetics until 1970 consisted for the most part of modestly titled articles with modest ambitions of the sort that were collected in the books edited by William Elton, Aesthetics and Language (1967), and Cyril Barrett, Collected Papers on Aesthetics (1965), for example. There were, by British writers, virtually no suitable introductory texts. The situation now is very different. Not only is there a bewildering array of choices among introductory texts and anthologies, but it is also true that some of the sharpest contemporary philosophical minds have thought deeply and wisely about aesthetics. Malcolm Budd, Colin McGinn, Roger Scruton, Jerrold Levinson, and Peter Kivy are first rate philosophers who have aesthetics at the centre of their interests. And there are gifted younger philosophers, whose primary interest lies in aesthetics, such Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, and Nigel Warburton, for example.
Nevertheless, traces of the old attitude towards the subject still persist. It is odd for instance, that John Haldane, one whose own philosophical talents should not be thought any less of because of their prolific and visible use, should reportedly say of Scruton (The Times, Wednesday December 3, 1997): “Most philosophers have neither the ambition nor the aptitude to work, as he does, in more than a single area. But his contribution to philosophy is not what it might have been given his abilities. He has the gift but not the interest to pursue philosophy into its details”. This quote comes after the Times‘s reporter, Jason Cowley, has commented: “The feeling persists among his [Scruton’s] critics that he is not serious at all; that he has squandered the chance to make an original contribution to philosophy by dissipating his talent across a variety of disciplines without committing himself to any. This has led to charges of dilettantism”. Scruton has indeed written a considerable number of books on a wide variety of philosophical and other subjects. But his contributions to Aesthetics alone constitute a formidable achievement – greater indeed than some, whose considerable reputations in the subject rest upon a lesser (both in quality and quantity) contribution. The Times‘s article marked the publication of Scruton’s important and impressive book The Aesthetics of Music: a definitive work which pursues one of the most discussed topics in aesthetics today “into its details” further than any other.
Those looking for suitable books to get started on the subject will find Dabney Townsend’s An Introduction to Aesthetics a highly reader-friendly guide. It is a clearly and attractively written work which will provide a very reliable text for many university courses on the subject. At the end of each chapter there are excellent, and bang up-to-date, suggestions for further reading and there is a useful glossary of terms used in the text at end. It is interesting to note that this is fifth in the Blackwell Series “Introducing Philosophy”, the first three of which commendably are on the Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Human Well-Being and Business Ethics, other subjects which, along with aesthetics, might previously have been thought too marginal to launch such a series.
Townsend takes as the basic structure for his book M.H. Abrams’s famous triangle from his 1953 book, The Mirror and the Lamp. But there is an oddity about Townsend’s use of this triangle. Abrams looked at the work of art’s relationship to three different things – the artist, the audience and the “universe”, by which Abrams means “[the] objective state of affairs [which], whether held to consist of people and actions, ideas and feelings, material things and events, or super-sensible essences, has frequently been denoted by that word-of-all-work, ‘nature'” (p 6, The Mirror and the Lamp, New York, 1953). In various different theories of criticism, the work of art can be seen as bearing a particularly close relationship to one of these elements. In mimetic theories, such as those of Plato, Aristotle, Lessing, or Ruskin, for example, there is an emphasis on the relationship between the work and what it represents, and such theories will characteristically employ phrases such as “true to life”, or “realistic”. Pragmatic theories, in contrast, will see works of art as having an effect on an audience, perhaps that of moral improvement. Such didactic critics, for example, Sidney, Johnson or Leavis, will use terms such as “moving”, “up-lifting” or “life enhancing”. Expressive theories, so typical of romanticism (the theories of Wordsworth and J.S. Mill, for example) stress the relationship between the artist and the work, and see works of art as expressive of the artist’s personality and feelings – words such as “sincerity” and “spontaneity” will be used. Now it is curious, given his explicit acknowledgement of Abrams’s triangle as his model, that Townsend, without comment, completely ignores one of these three elements, “the universe”, and considers only relationships between works of art and the audience and the artist. So Chapter 3 is “The Artist and the Work of Art”, Chapter 4 “The Audience and the Work of Art”, and Chapter 5 “The Artist and the Audience”. As a result, there is a conspicuous gap in the book, for questions about realism and representation (neither of these words, nor “mimesis”, appears in his index) are scarcely mentioned at all.
Another way of approaching the subject is through a selection of readings from a variety of philosophers. There is certainly no shortage of such anthologies on aesthetics. H.G. Blocker and J. Bender, Contemporary Philosophies of Art (1992); G. Dickie, R.J. Sclafini and R. Roblin, Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology (1989); J.A. Fisher, Reflecting on Art (1993); A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhn, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (1976); J. Hospers, Introductory Readings in Aesthetic (1969); J. Margolis, Philosophy Looks at the Arts (1987); A. Neill and A. Ridley, The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern (1995) and Arguing About Art(1995) and, indeed, Dabney Townsend’s own selection, Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition (1996) are just some of the many admirable collections available. Apart from justifying the production of yet another selection, there is a problem that editors of such collections ought to face. And that is that aesthetics has a history, in a way in which, at least arguably, logic or metaphysics, for example, don’t. Although, of course, different philosophers, over thousands of years, have had different things to say about logic and metaphysics, and so there is a history of thinking about these subjects, nevertheless, these different philosophers, it could be argued, (see Strawson, for example, Individuals, p 10) were talking about the same set of problems, the same concepts. Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams would wish to say it would be wrong to think of moral concepts as being timeless in this way. And the same is surely true, but even more so, with aesthetics. For in aesthetics, the very subject matter changes – and grows. New works of art are constantly being created, and constantly posing new aesthetic challenges and problems. When Plato writes about paintings, or Aristotle writes about tragedy, they are writing about significantly different phenomena from those that a modern philosopher would be in talking about painting or tragedy. And the twentieth century, in particular, has seen artists self-consciously challenging aesthetics, and by that means contributing to it.
What this means is that books on aesthetics are likely quickly to be out of date, and collections of historical writings on the subject can seem faded and irrelevant to contemporary issues. One way round this is to take a series of contemporary aesthetic debates, and to reproduce some of the principal, or typical, contributions to them. This is the method of Neill and Ridley, whose useful Arguing About Art takes 12 issues of particular interest to late twentieth century – some of them could only be discussed now – for example, the “colorization of movies”, while other problems they deal with, while they could conceivably have been discussed in previous centuries, as a matter of fact were not, for a variety of reasons – musical authenticity, or feminism and aesthetics, for example. A different approach is taken Fisher, who takes a series of problems, some discussed throughout history (the subjectivity or otherwise of aesthetic judgement, or Art and Morality), and some of particularly modern nature (the challenge of the avant-garde) and, after useful summaries of the issues involved, he reproduces a judicious mixture of classic and contemporary readings.
Cooper’s “new” anthology, on the other hand, is yet another a selection of “classic readings”, and suffers, I think, from a certain fustiness as a result. Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer and Tolstoy all duly make their appearances in Cooper, as they do in all the other such selections. And to find Plotinus, Schiller, Hegel, Bell and Collingwood is no surprise either, and it is good to see Dewey and Heidegger represented. More unusually, Cooper has included Mo Tzu (c.479-438 BC) and Hsun Tzu (c.313-238 BC) on music, Shih-t’ao (c.1642-1718 AD) on painting, and Coomaraswamy (1877-1947 AD) on the Dance of Siva. The most recent extract in Cooper’s book is from Collingwood’s The Principles of Art (1938), which, although interesting (and regularly anthologised), already has a distinctly dated air about it. There is no Sartre, no Adorno, no Benjamin, no Langer, no Croce, no Wittgenstein, no Dickie or Danto, no Wollheim, no Ingarden, no Wolterstoff, no Arnheim, no Bazin, no Derrida, no Barthes. In short, there is nothing here reflecting the enormous changes in art and aesthetics in this century. The chosen extracts in any case contain very little mention of actual works of art or artists (though the editor’s short and useful introductions to each extract do make such references). The result is that, influential and important though these writings may be, the subject is made to seem rather dry and abstract. It is an anthology which could have been compiled 50 years ago.