What Follows is a guest post by Aaron Meskin (University of Leeds)
Peter Kivy, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and an incredibly influential contemporary philosopher of art, passed away last week. See other announcements here, along with a statement from the Rutgers Philosophy Department. What follows is a guest post by Aaron Meskin, a former student of Peter Kivy’s.
Please feel free to share any stories, comments, or reflections below.
I met Peter in the early 1990s when I started my PhD at Rutgers. I didn’t really know about philosophical aesthetics before I moved to New Brunswick, and I certainly didn’t see it as a live career option. Peter’s seminars, and those wonderful aesthetics reading groups in the basement of Davidson Hall, introduced me to a field that would come to be the focus of my intellectual life. (Peter’s tutorial-style method of teaching, which required us to regularly read out short writing assignments, was incredibly helpful. He told us that when we were in the profession we would occasionally find that we had to produce a decent piece of writing at very short notice and that his class would be good practice. He was right, and it was.) If it hadn’t been for Peter’s generosity, and the example he provided, I would have likely left the profession after an ill-fated attempt to work in another area. He was always supportive.
There were some limitations to our academic relationship, of course. I remember sometime during my time at Rutgers seeing an advertisement for a conference focused on faculty/student collaboration. Jokingly, I asked Peter whether we might collaborate. He was not keen. “I’ve never collaborated with anyone on anything up until this point, and I’m not going to start now.” Strictly speaking that wasn’t true. His first published article, “Stimulus Context and Satiation,” in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, was co-authored with two others. But that was published while Peter was still an undergraduate at Michigan. And as far as I know he never again co-authored a paper in 60 years. I suppose the world is not really worse for lacking a paper on absolute music and wordless comics.
“Peter was loyal to his students,
and he inspired loyalty in us.”
In any case, our relationship continued after I defended my PhD. Peter was loyal to his students, and he inspired loyalty in us. We met pretty regularly—he’d come and give another great talk in Lubbock or Leeds, or we’d see each other at an ASA meeting where he regularly arranged dinners with his former students. Or we’d get together, with his wife Joan of course, in New York or Santa Fe or London. He always had new work and a bit of advice.
I know that it’s tempting to focus on Peter’s contribution to the philosophy of music. His research shaped the field. (I found Music Alone especially memorable, but I know that Peter was particularly proud of his book on opera, Osmin’s Rage.) His scholarly work on the history of aesthetics was also groundbreaking. Where would our understanding of the development of aesthetics be without The Seventh Sense and the rest of Peter’s work on Hutcheson, Hume, Reid and others? Not very far along, I venture. And his recent publications in the philosophy of literature have reinvigorated debates about literature’s cognitive value, reading, and form/content unity. I love teaching that work—and the responses to it—in my philosophy of literature courses. If you haven’t taught Peter’s work, I strongly recommend doing so. The clarity of his arguments and his lucid style make it ideal for introductory classes in aesthetics.
But it was Peter’s emphasis on the importance of paying philosophical attention to the differences between various art forms, as he discussed in his 50th Anniversary Presidential Address to the American Society of Aesthetics, and his 1997 CUP monograph, Philosophies of Arts, that made the biggest impact on me. As he put it in his address:
But I do urge, and indeed predict that progress in the philosophy of art in the immediate future is to be made not by theorizing in the grand manner, but by careful and imaginative philosophical scrutiny of the individual arts and their individual problems, seen as somewhat unique, individual problems and not necessarily as instances of common problems of some monolithic thing called “ART.”
Of course this sort of approach was just how Peter had worked throughout his career. He did do some work that might be characterized as ‘theorizing in the grand manner’, especially early on in his career. His first monograph was about aesthetic concepts, and there are two great articles on aesthetic emotivism. There is the award-winning 2015 monograph, De Gustibus: Arguing about Taste and Why We Do It? But most of his non-historical work involved careful and imaginative scrutiny of the individual arts of music and literature and the distinctive problems they raise. And he made a hell of a lot of progress over the course of a couple dozen books and many dozen articles. The work was original and, for many of us, exemplary.
“The work was original
and, for many of us, exemplary.”
I think Peter’s prediction has largely been proven to be correct. Significant progress in the philosophy of art has in recent years been made by careful scrutiny of the individual problems raised by film, poetry, dance, music, street art, comics, and videogames (among other things). Yes, even comics and videogames. Peter didn’t entirely approve, but he didn’t entirely disapprove either.
In fact, I’d go a bit further than Peter. The differences between the arts are not the only differences to which philosophical aesthetics should attend. Thankfully, we are beginning to attend to those differences. But, of course, Peter did not think that philosophers of art should only pursue differences. He warns, in the epilogue to Philosophies of Arts, that it would be a serious mistake if the pursuit of differences ‘should become the monolith that the pursuit of sameness has been since the Enlightenment’. He’s right, and thankfully it hasn’t. Work on sameness—most notably the definition of art—has been reinvigorated over the last few years.
We were very different. The oboe is not really my thing, and I don’t care so much for Manhattans. I prefer rap music to the western classical tradition. (Thankfully, he never heard me say that.) I’ll probably never be able to tell a joke like him, and I’m certain that I’ll never write that many great books. Who will? But despite our differences, there were important areas of sameness. We shared a love of the philosophy of art, of the community of philosophical aesthetics and of the arts. I’ll miss being able to talk about those things with him. I’ll miss finding out about his new work. I’ll miss his advice and his sense of humor. I’ll miss him.
Note on the contributor:
Aaron Meskin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds. He works on many issues in aesthetics, including experimental aesthetics, food, comics, as well as on the psychology and epistemology of aesthetics.
May 16, 2017 at 1:52 pm
Thank you, Aaron. Miss him we shall.
May 16, 2017 at 3:42 pm
Beautifully written, Aaron, and a really nice overview of his many contributions.
May 16, 2017 at 5:45 pm
Well said, Aaron, thanks for writing this.
May 16, 2017 at 5:47 pm
PS: Sorry, I’m logged into WordPress as “Dad”. Meant to thank you as Jeff Dean.
May 16, 2017 at 7:40 pm
I met Peter once, when I asked him to be the keynote speaker at our graduate conference. He was very happy to agree, and said that it was a special thing to be asked to keynote a grad conference, and that someday I’d understand that.
He gave a super interesting and engaging talk about formalism in literature. He was very friendly and a bit jokey with everyone, and didn’t take offense that people weren’t very familiar with aesthetics or with his work. He ran a casual, conversational Q&A that everyone could enjoy and get something out of, and hung around with us all for the day. A friend working in political philosophy said it was a perfect instance of a good unilateral decision, and an important overthrow of the usual tyranny of the majority in speaker selections.
I especially remember he was very pleased about the painting I selected for the announcement poster, which made me feel very proud (as a budding aesthetician, to be praised for my taste by Peter Kivy!), which I’ll share here:
May 20, 2017 at 10:47 pm
Aaron, we have not met, but perhaps will someday in future. I’m one of Joan Pearlman’s daughters aka one of the ‘three ladies’ referred to in the dedication to Osmin’s Rage! Thank you so much for this lovely post about Peter. While I never had the opportunity to study with him formally, everything you write resonates with my memory of him and it is lovely to see Peter remembered in this way.