Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

How I came to be interested in interesting things


Photography of the author

What follows is a guest post by P.D. Magnus. He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His research is primarily in the philosophy of science and secondarily all over the place. He is the co-editor New Waves in Philosophy of Science (Palgrave, 2010) and of author of Scientific Enquiry and Natural Kinds: From Planets to Mallards (Palgrave 2012). He blogs at Footnotes on Epicycles. Most importantly, P.D. was the TA for the Introduction to Philosophy course I took as a college freshmen and therefore personally responsible for all of my philosophical shortcomings (starting with the C+ I received in Introduction to Philosophy).

A couple of years ago, I was at a conference on science and metaphysics. One of the other attendees finished a sentence with the caveat that he was only talking about science and, of course, that he had nothing to say about the ontology of art. He presupposed, as many philosophers do, that lessons from philosophy of science won’t apply in philosophy of art. This partly reflects modesty (which is healthy) but it also reflects an insular over-specialization (which is pernicious).

Other than a seminar which I took with Mary Devereaux during my first semester in graduate school, I have no background in philosophy of art. My primary work has been in philosophy of science, especially on the problem of underdetermination and the nature of natural kinds. However, two influences led me to publish about art ontology.

1. Crazy experimental musicians: My wife Cristyn is a composer and computer musician. She was a graduate student in the music department, so I attended countless parties with musicians, composers, and music scholars. It was not all vodka and yoghurt chasers. In conversation with her and at those parties, we talked about the nature of music. Once I had thought about it enough to have a philosophical argument, I was able to test my conclusions and intuitions with people who were more intimately familiar with musical practice than I was.

2. Christy Mag Uidhir: I’ve been friends with Christy since high school. Most of my publications in philosophy of art have been prompted by him in one way or another: a critical response to one of his articles, some coauthored papers, and an invited contribution to a volume he edited.

In some ways, I have even less background in analytic metaphysics than I have in philosophy of art. So my approach is not to propose a fundamental framework which can be deployed like aerial drones in ontology of x for any x. My work in philosophy of science depends on the details in important ways. I have strenuously argued against wholesale arguments (which aim to show something about all or most of science without attention to the details) and in favor of retail arguments (which establish conclusions relying on the contingent details of particular cases or domains). So drawing parallels between scientific objects and art objects is not automatic.

Here’s an example: In November 2007, I presented a conference paper arguing for pluralism about ‘theory’. Christy was in the audience. He called me up sometime later and suggested that a similar argument could be given for pluralism about ‘art’. My immediate reaction was that this couldn’t be right. Theory and art are such different things! I stewed on it and saw both how it could be right and also how the details made the case for art different. As it happened, the argument for art was the one that was ultimately published.

Working out the details in philosophy art requires reflecting on actual art, just as working out the details in philosophy of science requires reflecting on actual science, but there are informative parallels. The scientific realism that I argue for is ‘equity realism’: that “electrons are on much the same footing as pain and baguettes” and that the natural kinds are on much the same footing as those particulars (see ch.4 of Planets to Mallards). They are all out there in the world, even though they won’t be accounted for in just the same way. My equity realism extends to songs, novels, and other familiar objects of aesthetic attention.

Because I came to thinking about art in this side-ways fashion, I don’t make the usual assumptions. Many philosophers of art treat painting as paradigmatic and, when extending their accounts, find music to be an oddball outlier. I find music to be easy enough to understand, and I think of painting on the model of music. Most philosophers who do write about music typically take notated instrumental works (pure music) as paradigmatic. I came to philosophy of music by thinking about the music I was listening to: folk music played in local coffee shops; jazz played in bars and played-back on CDs; a diverse array of recordings, improv, and scored pieces played in music department concerts. Whereas the usual approach makes sense of Beethoven and tries to move on from there, I have the least to say about classical music.

I understand the appeal of specialization in philosophy. Focusing just on one set of questions means only having to reckon with the literature about those questions and only having to think about the details of the domain interrogated by those questions. That would be compatible with my preference for retail arguments. However, I think that philosophy often profits by an infusion of side-ways approaches. The retail arguments in one domain can be fruitfully pollinated by inspiration from others.

The too-long; didn’t-read version: As a matter of personal preference and history, I’m a dilettante.


  1. More fields could use dilettantes, to be honest. Too often, in sociology at least, the term interloper gets casually hurled instead, and fruitful contributions from diverse subfields are stifled. It's a variant of the old emic/etic argument (and a strident belief in practice if not theory that such a binary was both plausible and practicable). In reading classmates' works in fields such as education, bystander theory, and labor, I am always struck by the sympathy, if not outright similarity in the way we approach and argue these subjects.

    So… maybe sociologists just use the same arguments regardless of the subject matter.

  2. CHRISTY COMMENT: P.D., might you say a few more words about specialization in philosophy especially with regard to the background expectations that seem to go hand in hand with it (at least for certain sub-fields). For instance, I know that you have a formal background in physics, but do you think all philosophers of science ought to have some formal background or training in one of the natural sciences (insofar as they expect to pursue philosophy of science in some responsible fashion)? Do you think the responsible pursuit of these side-ways approaches in some sense likewise requires one to have the appropriate background for the field other than one's own?

  3. Christy: I don't think that philosophers of science need to have training in the cognate field, although it helps. What they need is a willingness to engage with the details, to talk with practitioners, and to read enough of the literature to have some grasp of what's going on.
    There's a limit to this, of course. Engaging in the cognate practice too much risks never getting back to philosophy. I went to grad school with some people who were interested in philosophy of mind or philosophy of science and who ended up just becoming scientists.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.