AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"AESTHETICS’ PHILOSOPHICAL IMPORTANCE" BY ANNA CHRISTINA RIBEIRO

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The following is a guest post by Anna Christina Ribeiro.

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].)*

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’s Editorial 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.

Notes on the Contributor

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.

20 thoughts on “"AESTHETICS’ PHILOSOPHICAL IMPORTANCE" BY ANNA CHRISTINA RIBEIRO

  1. I agree with 99.8% of this (and the .2% is inconsequential).

    One thought that I've often had when thinking about these matters is something Alex Neill once told me (and I think he wrote about this for the ASA newletter)–in a way, we analytic aestheticians are victims of our own success. We have two dedicated journals, and so most people publish there predominately, and so our work is not read by readers of generalist journals. Something about this seems right, but at the same time, there is enough work in aesthetics being done to overflow JAAC and BJA, and yet…. Meanwhile those philosophers who don't read the journal Ethics still have respect for ethicists. Sort of.

    I wonder if it's fair, by the way, to cast Ayer in the role of lead villain. Surely his logical positivism has something to do with the story you tell, a big part, so he's certainly a suitable mascot. (And I can never forget Passmore's annoyingly persistent phrase, “the dreariness of aesthetics”). I actually think that for similar reasons, ethics also went through a long, dark period of little respect. It wasn't really until Rawls published A Theory of Justice that the dam broke, and loads of people in that Harvard group–Nozick, Thomson, Nagel–started getting respect for their work in ethics. It doesn't seem like we've had that dam-breaking moment in aesthetics, despite the work of Goodman, Danto, Wollheim, and Walton. I'm not really sure why that is.

    I do have a suspicion, though, and it's the thing you address in your opening paragraphs. I think many philosophers think the subject matter is simply superficial, trivial, or silly. Ethics concerns how to live, and metaphysics concerns the ultimate nature of things. Serious stuff. Aesthetics is concerned with….pretty things? Cute things? Of course this is a ridiculous view of our area, but I suspect it's the view many in fact have. 20 minutes spent with some recent issues of JAAC and BJA would show that aesthetics is not only concerned with things that many of these people actually value quite highly outside the study (as evidenced by their behavior, if not their words), but also a direct and interesting route into some of the most basic and long-standing philosophical problems: the appearance/reality distinction, the nature of abstract objects and our ability to have knowledge of them, the relation between various species of value, and indeed, what makes a life worth living, to name but a few.

    This is something that needs to be read by non-aestheticians. Perhaps the fact that it's an online piece means it will be linked and reblogged elsewhere. Let's hope so. Thanks for writing this.

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  2. I totally agree with the appraisal of the situation, but am not sure about the diagnosis. If Ayer’s emotivism were to blame for the under-representation of aesthetics in American philosophy departments, then one would expect there to be more aesthetic subjectivists in the US than in Europe or the UK. But the Philpapers survey suggests there are more subjectivists in Europe than elsewhere… (I couldn’t find the exact numbers for the US, but given the numbers for “not Europe”, I suspect they are significantly lower than Europe’s.)

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  3. Thanks Anna, this is a very important post. In many ways, I think the situation is even more serious.
    First, the real issue is the lack of aesthetics faculty at PhD granting institutions. But then where will the next generation of aestheticians come from? Your way of calculating aesthetics faculty is very generous, it clearly includes people whose primary focus is not aesthetics and who, while probably teach aesthetics to undergrads, would be less likely to take on PhD students in aesthetics (as they have lots of other PhD students that are closer to their central interests). And, even worse, in the present philosophical climate, the responsible thing for an advisor whose PhD student is contemplating specializing in aesthetics is to persuade him or her not to do that (if he/she wants a good job).

    I also think that the responsibility to change all this is mainly ours. We should not wait for the rest of philosophy to suddenly realize that aesthetics is intrinsically important to our lives (let's face it, intrinsic importance to our lives is not in any way indicative of what is taken to be central in analytic philosophy) . A number of aestheticians told me that they prefer to publish in BSA or JAAC. That's ok, but then how will the rest of philosophy know what we're up to. If there were more aesthetics papers in generalist journals, then aesthetics would more difficult to put down as peripheral.

    But of course it's all a vicious circle: if aesthetics is considered as peripheral, generalist journals will be less likely to publish aesthetics papers. One way to break out of this vicious circle would be to bring aesthetics questions (or at least the way we ask them) closer to more 'core' philosophical subdisciplines. So, to use a self-serving example, if we ask a question that could be taken to be both an aesthetics question and a philosophy of perception question, then both aestheticians and philosophers of perception would be more likely to pay more attention. And this general strategy may pull aesthetics closer to what is now considered to be the 'core' of analytic philosophy.

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  4. It's nice to see you again, Anna.

    As an aging Ph.D. with a specialty in aesthetics (dissertation supervised by the late Ted Cohen), numerous peer-reviewed publications, and never an offer of a tenure-track job in almost twenty years of making applications, I think I am in an unimpeachable position to complain about the lack of recognition accorded to aesthetics in hiring decisions. Despite all this, I am doubtful of many of your main claims.

    It seems to me that the secondary position accorded to the specialty of aesthetics within the discipline of philosophy reflects the fact that aesthetics has not been a driver of innovation in the larger field. Philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind and its numerous offshoots—like it or not, these are the fields whose developments, within the analytic tradition of philosophy, have had impact on the way in which philosophy is done in other specialties within the discipline. Aesthetics is not, or at least, has not been such a field. It has been a passenger, not a driver. Would this change if more positions were allocated to the specialty? Perhaps; but why should philosophers move to allocate more of their limited academic resources to this particular neglected field and not to, say, the philosophy of education, which was a central concern of Plato and Aristotle but which now is virtually a non-subject? (I'm not particularly interested in it myself; I just note that it is even more slighted and neglected than aesthetics.)

    A specialty within philosophy gains prominence and influence in the larger discipline when work is done within it that causes practitioners of other specialties to rethink their own work. This does not seem to be happening, or ever to have happened, in aesthetics, at least in the analytic tradition. It is possible that this is due to the paucity of jobs in aesthetics. But it is also possible that it owes to the nature of the subject. It seems to me that the dire prospects for the future of the specialty (on which point I am entirely in agreement with your closing paragraph) have more to do with the overall contraction in tenure-track jobs than to the specific standing of aesthetics within the field.

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  5. Well said, Anna. I have recently been having this sort of discussion myself. Thanks also for gathering all the data.

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  6. Hello Brandon, Raf, Bence, Miles & Amie! Nice to “see” you all here, and thanks for your comments. Here are some thoughts in response.

    Brandon & Raf, maybe my diagnosis is not accurate, and Ayer is not the lead villain. He was just a key figure in a movement where surely many others shared his view–an easy target, perhaps. But whoever is most to blame, the fact remains that that general view of aesthetics is in the background of current attitudes to the field. As for there being more aesthetic subjectivists in Europe than in the US, well, I'm not sure if that follows, but I'd be interested in seeing the PhilPapers survey if you have a link you can share with us. I think Brandon is right that ethics, though it underwent a similar undervaluation period, came out of that and is today respected and well established. Perhaps Rawls had something to do with this; I wouldn't know. I suspect that the various kinds of applied ethics that have emerged in recent decades are part of the explanation, as is the fact that meta-ethics is basically philosophy of language applied to moral statements, and philosophy of language is still thought to be of central importance in many departments.

    Bence, I agree that my way of counting was perhaps a bit generous. Christy's numbers in the footnote may be more accurate. Either way, the picture is grim. I agree that the responsibility is ours to change this situation, and I do think that we should submit papers to generalist journals (read “m & e” journals) more often. However, practically speaking, given the rejection rate of aesthetics papers by generalist journals, an aesthetician trying to publish, period, especially at the beginning of her or his career, is probably wise to stick with aesthetics journals. I think that in this age of over-specialization, it is a general problem, not just an aesthetics problem, that most people only read the few journals most relevant to their AOS. It is an abundance of riches problem, coupled with the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. About your last point, I think your approach to the way in which we pose questions is a fruitful one (even if I somewhat resent the fact of having to 'reel them in' in that way); it is important in any area to be able to speak to others who may not share your AOS or even your field.

    Miles, your professional history breaks my heart, and I am sorry things have gone that way for you. About your point that aesthetics has never influenced others areas of philosophy, I don't know if that is entirely true (I think Goodman, for instance, has been influential outside of our area). But I think some aestheticians have been quite influential, only more so outside of philosophy. People like Noël Carroll and Kendall Walton have, I think, been influential in e.g. film theory and visual arts theories, respectively, and of course Arthur Danto was a huge figure in art criticism. Combining what you say with what Bence says, perhaps this happened because these philosophers were able to speak in a way that resonated with others outside of philosophy, and it would be good if we could speak in a way that resonates with philosophers in other areas as well.

    Thanks again for your feedback. Let us hope bringing this issue to the fore brings about some positive change.

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  7. Since the UK seems to be doing so much better than the US/Canada when it comes to the philosophy of art (although Canada may be doing a little better than the US; I'm not sure), it would be interesting to hear everyone's (especially those familiar with the situation in the UK!) take on how the current climate for aesthetics developed over there, and what lessons we might glean from the UK's experience(s).

    Two significant differences leap to mind when I think of the UK situation: (1) the relative proximity of departments, and thus the relatively high concentration of specialists, and (2) the RAE.

    With respect to (1), it seems like there are all kinds of workshops, talks, public/museum lectures, etc. going on, and that (in conjunction with the relative proximity of universities to one another, and the consequent density of philosophers) helps raise awareness of the subfield among both the public (including admin!) and other philosophers. (To be sure, there's something of a chicken-and-egg problem here, since no amount of proximity will help the philosophy of art unless there are philosophers of art already in place.)

    With respect to (2), I wonder (and this is pure, more or less uninformed conjecture!) whether the RAE might not actually favour the hiring of philosophers of art, at least in some respects. Provided that the BJA and JAAC are ranked relatively highly (I have no idea whether they are), impact considerations might help outweigh other kinds of bias/concerns about/whatever against philosophers of art, and thus remove some of hurdles to hiring that North American applicants might encounter.

    I like to think of the philosophy of art as in something of a privileged position, since it's so easy for it to make contact with other areas of philosophy, (as many have done with respect to abstract objects, fictional truth/reference, perception, ethics and free speech, etc.). Analytic aesthetics seems especially well-placed since it makes contact with so many philosophical subfields (language and metaphysics especially, but also mind, biology, ethics, feminist phil., and others). And our relation to our subfield's history may even put us in a privileged position when it comes to participating with our colleagues in historical and continental subfields. Aesthetics/philosophy of art just seems really well placed to act as a bridge-builder not just to the rest of philosophy, but even to other zones of academia (and that sounds to me like an enrollment upper).

    But I guess being in that kind of position is also kind of dangerous, since it might make the subfield seem more like a second-class, spare-time kind of subfield, and the threat of interdisciplinary dilution probably scares a lot of people away.

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  8. For what it's worth: I (Robert Yanal), with a primary specialty in philosophy of art, retired from Wayne State in 2011. My specialty was not replaced even though PHI 370 Philosophy of Art is a required course in the Art Department – about 150 students a year. The department has been running the course on part-timers. In the meantime, specialists in Ancient and Modern Philosophy have been hired. Those courses are far less enrolled.

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  9. Echoing and developing a bit on Miles's point, it's not just the paucity of aestheticians in the leading departments that has such a negative effect on aesthetics. It's the fact that anyone who chooses to write a dissertation on aesthetics in today's market–even a dissertation that covers areas besides aesthetics–finds it very difficult to get a TT job. People can hold on for only so long–through post-docs and VAP positions–before they have to decide to leave the profession altogether. What we get then is a feedback loop–fewer people producing interesting work on aesthetics, thus reinforcing the false belief that aesthetics is not interesting, thus eliminating even more opportunities for aestheticians. In the last two years, when I have been on the market with an AOS in aesthetics, there have been exactly three TT jobs listing aesthetics as an AOS–and two of these were included in a cluster. And sadly, the one job with an AOS squarely in aesthetics was a weird situation that shouldn't count as a genuine opportunity. I can't tell you how many open jobs I have applied to in departments that had no one doing aesthetics, even as a teaching interest. So I think part of the problem surely is the perception of the area within philosophy and part of the problem is the failure of top departments to hire working aestheticians, but long-term, just as problematic is the inevitable exodus of promising aestheticians for other fields, by economic necessity. Surely part of the solution then is to convince SLAC departments that it's in their interests to have a working aesthetician in their midst.

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  10. Scott, indeed, open jobs might as well be labelled “Open except for aesthetics.” Given that departments often wish to strengthen a particular sub-field for which they may already be known, if there is no aesthetician in the department, then they will be left out of consideration. Even when there is no explicit desire to strengthen a particular area, people often wish to hire those who do something similar to or overlapping with what they do, rather than (as we might wish and think reasonable) hiring someone for an area that no one else in their department covers. I think we all agree on the many varieties of the feedback loop, including the one you mention. I also think any top department should have the resources to educate its students not only in a few, but in all main areas of philosophy, and of course I take aesthetics to belong in that group.

    Does SLAC stand for 'Selective Liberal Arts Consortium'? If so, why do you single them out, and why do you think it is in their interest to have an aesthetician in their midst?

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  11. Looks like the internet ate my post. Re-posting:

    Since the UK seems to be doing so much better than the US/Canada when it comes to the philosophy of art (although Canada may be doing a little better than the US; I'm not sure), it would be interesting to hear everyone's (especially those familiar with the situation in the UK!) take on how the current climate for aesthetics developed over there, and what lessons we might glean from the UK's experience(s).

    Two significant differences leap to mind when I think of the UK situation: (1) the relative proximity of departments, and thus the relatively high concentration of specialists, and (2) the RAE.

    With respect to (1), it seems like there are all kinds of workshops, talks, public/museum lectures, etc. going on, and that (in conjunction with the relative proximity of universities to one another, and the consequent density of philosophers) helps raise awareness of the subfield among both the public (including admin!) and other philosophers. (To be sure, there's something of a chicken-and-egg problem here, since no amount of proximity will help the philosophy of art unless there are philosophers of art already in place.)

    With respect to (2), I wonder (and this is pure, more or less uninformed conjecture!) whether the RAE might not actually favour the hiring of philosophers of art, at least in some respects. Provided that the BJA and JAAC are ranked relatively highly (I have no idea whether they are), impact considerations might help outweigh other kinds of bias/concerns about/whatever against philosophers of art, and thus remove some of hurdles to hiring that North American applicants might encounter.

    I like to think of the philosophy of art as in something of a privileged position, since it's so easy for it to make contact with other areas of philosophy, (as many have done with respect to abstract objects, fictional truth/reference, perception, ethics and free speech, etc.). Analytic aesthetics seems especially well-placed since it makes contact with so many philosophical subfields (language and metaphysics especially, but also mind, biology, ethics, feminist phil., and others). And our relation to our subfield's history may even put us in a privileged position when it comes to participating with our colleagues in historical and continental subfields. Aesthetics/philosophy of art just seems really well placed to act as a bridge-builder not just to the rest of philosophy, but even to other zones of academia (and that sounds to me like an enrollment upper).

    But I guess being in that kind of position is also kind of dangerous, since it might make the subfield seem more like a second-class, spare-time kind of subfield, and the threat of interdisciplinary dilution probably scares a lot of people away.

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  12. Hi Anna. It strikes me that, as in the case of ancient philosophy, some of the best friends of aesthetic theory may be found outside philosophy departments–in art, music, and literature programs. It may be that one way to strengthen the field is to 'build bridges' to colleagues in those other departments–encourage joint appointments, joint dissertation committees, team-taught courses, etc. It’s true, of course, that professors of aesthetics have to be hired in a philosophy department, and that can't happen unless the members of the philosophy faculty choose to identify this as a needed area of expertise. But I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the measures I mentioned could help bring that about. Influential faculty in other departments can sometimes help shape these decisions. When I served as dean I chaired a college wide committee charged to identify areas of future growth in the college of arts and humanities. A number of the non-philosophy members of that committee had strong views about what kinds of philosophy appointments would be desirable from their point of view, and their arguments help to shape college reallocation decisions. The hard part, in my experience, is developing the essential close working relationships, and it sounds like you have already done a good job on that front.

    J. H. Lesher

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  13. Anna, I was referring to small liberal arts colleges, which is where you'd expect a strong student demand for classes like aesthetics, philosophy of art, literature, film, music.

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  14. Hi Anna, Thanks for your response. The survey I mentioned can be found here: http://philpapers.org/surveys

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  15. Apologies for any comments that have disappeared. If this happens, feel free to email me directly to post your comments (cmaguidhir@gmail.com).

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  16. Raf, thanks for the link, I'd forgotten about that survey (which I confess I find a bit funny). It is an interesting question why that should be.

    Michel, like you I would be very keen to learn how the current UK openness to aesthetics developed there so that we can take a page from their book. It is quite possible that relative proximity might help, but as you rightly note, the philosophers of art have to be there in the first place for that proximity to be an advantage. About the RAE, that's an interesting point. It might have some influence in a top-down sort of way. It would be interesting to find out if that is the case.

    I also agree that aesthetics is well placed to be a bridge builder in the ways you mentioned. I have often thought of aesthetics as applied metaphysics, applied philosophy of mind, applied epistemology, and so on. But I find it regrettable that people in those fields do not seem to see much use in crossing the bridge themselves. I think (and Amie Thomasson has argued this in some of her work) that aesthetics can shed valuable light on some issues in metaphysics. I think the same goes for various other areas of philosophy, so it is a loss to philosophy if that dialogue does not happen.

    Jim Lesher also has a point when he says we ought to build those bridges beyond the philosophy department as well. At Texas Tech, we have a long standing connection with the Fine Arts Doctoral Program in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, thanks to the efforts of my colleague Daniel Nathan years ago. Their doctoral students are required to take at least one graduate course in aesthetics, and can take a second as an elective, which they often do. We have organized conferences together, and so on. Jim's story about the committee he chaired sends shivers down my spine and is an eye-opener about the importance of making such connections–but of course you need to have a job where you can make those connections first!

    Scott, you are probably right that SLACs have a greater demand for aesthetics courses. Indeed many aestheticians I know are employed at SLACs. Certainly at the undergraduate level, courses such as philosophy of film and philosophy of literature are a big draw. My question now is, why is only the (undergraduate) elite getting an education in aesthetics? Why do SLACs see the importance of such courses, and other schools do not? A different debate, to be sure, but it would be good to know the answers.

    I had an email exchange with Stephen Davies about this, and he noted how in Australia the situation is currently the same (it was better when he was a student–imagine that if it had been otherwise, we might not have him in aesthetics today!). I said that perhaps the success of people like Armstrong, Smart, now Chalmers, had stifled other areas of philosophy. Here is his response, for your amusement and horror:

    “At a conference I heard Jack Smart, surrounded by graduate students, warning them to stay away from feminist philosophy, aesthetics, and Continental philosophy. I was tempted to congratulate him for keeping up with the literature in such diverse areas.
    A colleague who works in aesthetics was asked by Armstrong what she did. His response was to say that he had read one article in the area written by John Passmore. He was alluding to the 1951 paper titled “the dreariness of aesthetics.””

    With a title like that, there's no need to ask what his view was. Passmore was only one of several influential people in analytic philosophy who expressed such views about aesthetics at that time. So we can add that to our diagnosis. Perhaps they exist, but I am not aware of any paper where an aesthetician passes judgment on other areas of philosophy, much less a denigrating judgment of this sort. Perhaps we should!

    Thanks again for the dialogue.

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  17. CHRISTY COMMENT: For those interested in the numbers, see my earlier posts at AFB, specifically:

    The Status of Aesthetics in the Leiter Top 50

    http://www.aestheticsforbirds.com/2013/07/the-status-of-aesthetics-in-leiter-top.html

    and The Status of Aesthetics in the UK

    http://www.aestheticsforbirds.com/2013/07/aesthetics-in-uk.html

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  18. Posting on behalf of Simon Blackburn:

    “I think there are several reasons for the relative scarcity of posts in analytical philosophy departments that want specialists in aesthetics, some better than others. In no particular order:

    (1) In the Anglo-American culture, there is general suspicion of “taste”. Not only do many people simply shrug and say “De gustibus….” but others are suspicious of the whole idea. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that taste was a trick or device to enable one class to separate itself from another: Bordieu calls it a “symbolic violence” inflicted by one class on another. I don't think they're right, but given that these ideas are there in the atmosphere, the lack of funding for specialists is not so surprising.

    (2) It is not clear what the analytic tradition has to say, beyond what can fairly easily be extrapolated from discussions of emotion, attitude, and so forth in ethics. So aesthetics is often seen as a simple extension of the more subjective components of ethics. And while ethics is undeniably important, spilling into public policy and politics, the place of art in the modern world is seen as much less so.

    (3) Allied with that, perhaps, there is the thought that there is nothing much for the “aesthetician” to do except imitate what art critics, literary critics, music critics etc. do anyhow. A course saying why it is a good idea to like Wagner or Jane Austen or Goya might happen in the music faculty, the literature faculty, or the fine arts or history of art department — but what has the philosopher per se to add to it? Perhaps alongside that people suspect that “cultural studies” “film studies” and the like are repositories for rebarbative post-modernist vaporisings, and best shunned altogether by self-respecting philosophy departments.

    I don't accept these arguments but they undoubtedly have force and need rebuttal. I think they might influence Deans and Chairmen, perhaps unconsciously. Perhaps the best rebuttal might come from a deeper understanding of the imaginative poverty of peoples' lives when they are lived within ugly surrounds, in ugly cities, and so on. Roger Scruton, one of the better philosophical aestheticians, always seems at his most convincing discussing architecture, although he runs the risk of indulging a certain nostalgia, disguised by talk about lost dignity and wholeness.”

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  19. And my initial response to Simon…

    I confess I was rather disheartened by your comments, and I am glad that you do not subscribe to those arguments. In my view, they could only be made by someone quite unacquainted with the wealth of topics discussed in analytic aesthetics today. A quick review of the table of contents of a few issues of the British Journal of Aesthetics or the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism would reveal that there is a lot more to contemporary aesthetics than those arguments might lead one to believe, including lively debate about the problem of ideal critics first raised by Hume in the essay you mention you cover in your courses. The Companion to Aesthetics that I edited is only one of several on the market, with many in sub-fields such as philosophy of film and of literature, plus the gigantic Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, now in its second edition, all testifying to a lively philosophical sub-discipline. We just need departments (especially top ones) to broaden their horizons and see that.

    …with some additions:

    Analytic and continental aesthetics are quite different, and the post-modernist approaches are part of the continental tradition, and not followed by analytic aestheticians (in general). Unfortunately many analytic philosophers unfamiliar with aesthetics tend to associate aesthetics with continental aesthetics, and, since they shun continental philosophy in general, they will tend to shun aesthetics as a whole. But that is a mistake due to their unfamiliarity with the field (see remarks on the vicious circle in the original post).

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  20. Something from today's news that further underlines the importance of the aesthetic–not merely in human lives, but in what it means to be human at all: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716

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