Anna Christina Ribeiro is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University. She is currently on leave as this year’s Philip L. Quinn fellow at the National Humanities Center, where she is working on a book that has gone through various titles, the latest iteration of which is Stealing the Strings of Sappho: Essays in the Philosophy of Poetry.
Stop and think for a moment about the things you have done and said, and the thoughts you have had today. Have you noticed the look of a newscaster on television, or the voice of one on the radio? When you got dressed this morning, did you consider the look of your clothes, how well they matched, or how well they reflected your style or your mood? Have you looked out the window and thought it was a nice day, or a dreary day? Have you listened to music? Watched a movie or TV show? How many times in the process of doing these things did you think ‘That is beautiful’ or ‘That is a great story but the protagonist could have done a better job’ or discussed your reactions to a song, a show, a film, a novel, an art exhibit, with friends? Do you sometimes have a pleasant feeling come over you when you look at someone’s face? When you look at a sunset? When you stop and stare at waves crashing one after another on a beach, and the vastness of the sea behind them? When you see the trees swishing to the breeze outside, and a feeling of peace fills you and you forget for a moment what you were doing? Did you imagine, as you read these lines, each of these scenes, and did you react similarly to each of them as you might have were you really experiencing those things? Now consider how you often stare in awe at a lightning storm, which as you know could easily kill you as it has killed many, and yet you take pleasure at the sight of it anyway—usually so long as you take yourself to be safely sheltered, but sometimes even when you know that you are not. Or when you read a novel whose subject is unpleasant, do you not yet relish the way the story is told, the way it engages your thoughts and feelings? When you read or hear a poem, do you ever notice how the words used, they way they sound together, engages you as much as the meaning of what is being said? Do you feel about some languages that you love or hate the way they sound, regardless of whether you understand the language? Is there someone whose voice you enjoy hearing even if what they are saying is not of great importance, or whose voice grates on you no matter how momentous what they say is, to the point of interfering with your paying attention to what they are telling you?
My question in all of the above is, how many times, today alone, have you had what are properly called aesthetic reactions, how many times have you made aesthetic, and sometimes also artistic, judgments? How often are your actions colored, perhaps even determined, by what you find aesthetically agreeable or disagreeable? How much is your world, our world, an aesthetic world? Now let us broaden our scope beyond our personal experiences. When we look back at earlier civilizations, it is clear that their art is one of the main indicators of just how civilized they were. When we look at the earliest humans, their penchant for the aesthetic is in evidence even in the axes they used for the very pragmatic purposes of cutting and scraping things. As soon as they could, they created flutes so as to produce music. As soon as they could, they drew animals on cave walls, thankfully and miraculously preserved for our great admiration tens of thousands of years later. As soon as they could, they colored themselves, as well as beads and other items that they then added to their self-ornamentation (whatever other practical purposes that ornamentation most likely also served). As soon as they could, they started joining words together in ever fancier ways, and telling stories, and creating rituals that involved dance and music—all of these activities that have remained with us, uninterrupted, from the dawn of our species on this planet, wherever we were: Homo sapiens is, as Ellen Dissanayake put it, quintessentially also Homo aestheticus; the modern mind is an aesthetic mind. A little observation will reveal that; it is as obvious a fact about us as it is incontrovertible.
And yet, analytic philosophers, especially in America, belittle the importance of the aesthetic and artistic realm for philosophy. Going only by the departments ranked in the Philosophical Gourmet Report, we see a disheartening picture. In the top 50 U.S. departments, we find only 14 specialists in aesthetics. The top ten philosophy departments employ a total of 266 faculty members, but only 6 of them specialize in aesthetics—that is 1 aesthetician per about 44 philosophers, or 2% of the total—and some of these six faculty have aesthetics only as a secondary area of specialization. (The numbers are NYU [27/1], Rutgers [29/2], Princeton [29/1], Michigan [31/0], Harvard [22/1], Pittsburgh [19/0], MIT [18/0], Yale [31/1], Stanford [35/1], and UNC Chapel Hill [25/0].) **[See Note at Bottom]**
The main English-language philosophy journals, aside from the two officially dedicated to the field, publish papers in aesthetics only very rarely. The main philosophy conferences may have numerous talks and panels dedicated to metaphysics or epistemology, while a single session is dedicated to aesthetics. The field that so directly engaged the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, is seen by American analytic philosophers as being of minor importance, a light diversion to be pursued in one’s later philosophical years, if then. This attitude, bad in itself, also betrays the belief that anyone can do aesthetics, no matter whether they were trained in philosophy of physics or of mathematics. No philosopher would be caught saying the same of either of these other two fields.
Since they tend not to care for history, even that of their own tradition, most analytic philosophers may not realize that this attitude toward aesthetics is the legacy of the logical positivism that took root here as a result of the intellectual exodus caused by World War II. Perhaps A. J. Ayer is most to blame for the view that aesthetic judgments, like moral judgments in his view, are no more than the expression of personal preferences, subjective feelings not amenable to proper philosophical scrutiny, and consequently neither right nor wrong. What is wrong with that view? Possibly nothing, but, as with any philosophical view, it can be argued for and against, and this is what analytic philosophers (excluding the few of us who do aesthetics and the philosophy of art) never seemed to notice. Uncharacteristically for philosophers, they seem to have bought it hook, line and sinker, and Ayer’s claim, with all of its corollaries, has since been taken for gospel truth in the majority of American philosophy departments that are analytically oriented. The practical consequence is that most departments feel no need to have a specialist in a subfield they think has no philosophical need to exist in the first place. Perhaps it is even considered an embarrassment to have an aesthetician in house, as if that were a sign that the department is not sufficiently philosophically serious. Perhaps there is even resentment that resources should be allocated to a subfield considered less than essential. This lack of aestheticians in graduate programs in turn means that most programs will not expose their students to aesthetics, much less train them in it. And this in turn means that when those graduate students become professors, it is unlikely it will even occur to them to hire someone in aesthetics either, since they do not miss what they never had. The theoretical consequence is that the field is deprived of many excellent minds that could otherwise have contributed to it; knowledge suffers.
What if Ayer was right, and aesthetic judgments are purely subjective judgments? Does that exonerate the philosopher from trying to understand such judgments? I think not. If anything, their nature becomes all the more puzzling when we recognize that so many people converge on the same judgments, that everyone, old and young, here, there, everywhere and for so long as humans have existed, makes them, that we argue about them and think some people are wrong while others are right to like certain things and dislike others, that the things that engage us aesthetically and artistically are some of the things we value the most in life, and without which we would find life dreary and empty; perhaps, to adapt Socrates’ famous remark, we would even find that the unaesthetic life is not worth living.
Is the unaesthetic life even a possible life? It is a question whether it is even possible to be a human being and not have an aesthetic sensibility that will allow one to have aesthetic reactions and experiences and make aesthetic and artistic judgments. Could a human being function without the ability to perceive the beauty or ugliness of things? How much would that inability affect one’s capacity to perceive things correctly, to make reasonable judgments about the world, to engage socially and to make decisions? The role of emotions in moral judgments has been amply studied; not so the role of aesthetic sensitivity in perception and cognition in general. This brings us to cognitive science. Philosophy and cognitive science are close cousins, and much excellent work is being done on consciousness, the nature of thought, the nature of emotions, and various other philosophical issues that can benefit from empirical work. A lot more could be done on issues in aesthetics such as the ones described here.
I have emphasized that I am talking about the American analytic philosophy world here because the situation is different both in British analytic philosophy (I’ll focus on the U.K. and leave out discussion of other countries in the British Commonwealth) and in Continental philosophy. In Britain, philosophy departments tend to be larger and more diverse. More often than not, Continental and analytic philosophers populate the same department. Just as often—perhaps surprisingly, since that is where Ayer came from—departments will have not just one, but a few people dedicated to aesthetics and the philosophy of art. These philosophers will also frequently perform a public role, giving talks to the general public in museums and art galleries. There are numerous philosophy workshops and conferences dedicated to aesthetics.
Continental philosophy departments also generally have someone who specializes in aesthetics, usually as a co-specialization with 19th-century German philosophy, since four greats in the history of aesthetics, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, are all considered forefathers to the Continental tradition by Continentalists. Of these, only Kant manages to straddle the analytic and Continental traditions. Analytic aestheticians, however, unless they focus on the history of aesthetics, are not specialists in 19th-century German philosophy (and even then they are likely to focus on the history of British aesthetics). Since they are not Continentalists, they tend to be unfamiliar with the debates and figures of that tradition. They consequently are not welcomed to Continental philosophy departments, especially in the U.S., where a general animosity and mistrust often exists between these traditions above and beyond anything relating to aesthetics.
What to do about this state of affairs? It is hard to know how to begin to convince analytic philosophy departments that they ought to have someone dedicated to this important subfield, though I hope the remarks at the beginning of this essay are a step in that direction. The fact that the top two analytic departments in the U.S. (N.Y.U. and Rutgers) have recently hired aestheticians gives me hope that their move will inspire other departments to do the same. More worrisome, nevertheless, are the recent deaths of three renowned aestheticians: Arthur Danto, Lee Brown, and Ted Cohen. Danto’s post was filled long ago by Lydia Goehr when he retired. Will Brown’s and Cohen’s positions be filled also, or will they vanish into thin air? Some of the most prominent names in American analytic aesthetics today—Kendall Walton, Peter Kivy, Jenefer Robinson, Noël Carroll, Jerrold Levinson—have either retired or are likely to do so in near future. Will their positions be filled again, or will the general trend in American universities to decrease the number of tenure-track positions in favor of temporary ones manifest itself here? That would be an awful blow to aesthetics, to philosophy, and to our understanding of ourselves. There is so much yet to explore in our field, so many answers yet to be debated, so many questions not yet raised or even fathomed. I offer this as a call for reflection to American analytic departments. I look forward to reading your thoughts, if any, on this issue in the comments section below.
**Christy Note: The numbers according to my rough calculations paint an even bleaker picture than those provided by Anna: I put the number of Aestheticians (faculty with Aesthetics as their primary research speciality) amongst faculty within Leiter Top 50 programs at 1 in 70.