Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What Can We Learn from Art?



What follows is a guest post by Rafe McGregor (Leeds Trinity University)

‘Aesthetic’ is a vague and frustrating term with a profligate and confused history.  During the Enlightenment, the term was employed as a synonym for beauty, which was understood as taking many apparently unrelated forms, from the natural world to gardens to art to interior decorating and even mathematics. In the last two hundred years, it has frequently been conflated with the concept of the artistic. Consequently, philosophical aesthetics has been understood as sharing the same subject matter as art criticism. Both of these conceptions are too restrictive when it comes to the contemporary discipline.

Bence Nanay offers a refreshingly simply definition in Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception when he states that aesthetics is “about ways of perceiving the world that are really rewarding and special” (p. 1). Nanay distinguishes the particular type of perception involved as FODP – Focused on Objects but Distributed among the Properties of those objects. He thus provides a contemporary take on Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of aesthetic judgement in terms of disinterested pleasure. Combining the two, we have the aesthetic as primarily a kind of attention which is characteristically purposeless. In other words, it’s useless without being worthless.

‘Aesthetic education’ has suffered as much if not more than ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to multiplicity of meanings and inconsistency of usage. Aesthetic education has been employed as a synonym for a liberal arts education, to mean education in or through the arts, and as a defense of the role of either the arts, the humanities, or both within the education system. Its philosophical use is, however, precise: the tradition of aesthetic education does not identify an education in aesthetics, but a moral or ethical education by aesthetic means.

The thesis originates, like so much in value theory, with Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury’s work was highly original but notoriously unsystematic. He argued that aesthetic taste and art were necessary conditions for the flourishing of character and society respectively. Shaftesbury offered little evidence for this claim, and it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that the theory became popular.

In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller drew on Kant’s ideas to argue for the significance of the “instinct of play” in removing the barrier that prevented the elevation of the human being from the sensual and savage to the rational and moral (see XIV:67 and II:28). More significantly, he took beauty to have political implications. The harmony that an aesthetic education produced in the individual was replicated at the level of the state, which blended individual freedom and social justice. Though Schiller believed in the power of an aesthetic education, history unfortunately presents numerous counterexamples of civilizations where beauty was revered but where human rights were anything but respected.

Schiller’s Letters were nonetheless popular among artists, critics, and philosophers. Aesthetic education was adopted by public moralists such as John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century and cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin and F.R. Leavis in the twentieth century. After some decline, interest in the tradition was revitalized in the last decade of the twentieth century, following the posthumous revelation that literary theorist Paul de Man had collaborated with the National Socialist authorities in Belgium during the war. The subsequent ethical turn in criticism was pioneered by three major figures corresponding to three schools of thought: Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralism, Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, and Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelianism. But two authors, Nussbaum and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a former student of De Man’s, have advanced the most comprehensive contemporary theories of aesthetic education.

Nussbaum’s version, which is set out most clearly in Poetic Justice, is based on her identification of a genre of realist novels that includes (but is not restricted to) the work of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Richard Wright.  In these novels, the intimacy of the relation between narrative form and moral content is such that ‘concern for the disadvantaged is built into the literary experience’. Nussbaum is extremely ambitious and, like Schiller, proposes not only a moral education by aesthetic means, but also a political education, using Dickens’ Hard Times as an example of a novel that promotes liberal democracy.

For Spivak, aesthetic education is a theme (rather than an explicit theory) that links the twenty-five essays collected in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. She follows Schiller in claiming that aesthetic education can remove the barriers to self-actualization. The barriers she is concerned with are the gender and class prejudices that have been internalized by their victims. Spivak defines aesthetic education as “training the imagination for epistemological performance,” identifying the imagination as the bridge between the aesthetic and the ethical (see Chapter Five). Drawing on Derrida’s hyperbolic ethics, she argues that ethical situations are characteristically impossible – i.e., all moral choices are moral dilemmas – and that literature provides access to the imaginative experience of the impossible. In virtue of the shared feature of impossibility, aesthetic practice produces both aesthetic and ethical expertise.

Both Nussbaum and Spivak regard aesthetic experience – the experience of paying aesthetic attention to literary works – as an imaginative exercise that develops ethical sensibility and thus argue for a moral education by aesthetic means.  Unfortunately, each thesis is flawed: Nussbaum restricts her claim to a very narrow selection of novels and admits that they must be read sympathetically in the first instance; Spivak’s theory is more convincing, but relies on the adoption of a radical reconception of ethical responsibility that many will resist.

Perhaps more importantly in the age of quantification, monetization, and profit-seeking against which Nussbaum and Spivak rail in their respective ways, there is barely any empirical evidence for the effects of aesthetic experience on ethical sensibility. (Though Sarah E. Worth provides a careful and compelling argument for taking what little there is seriously in her In Defense of Reading.)

Still, the notion is perennially fascinating. In the contemporary landscape, it affords the perfect opportunity for collaboration among philosophers, literary theorists, and psychologists.

Notes on the Contributor
Rafe McGregor is Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Trinity University and Associate Lecturer at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. He specializes in narrative representation, crimes against humanity, and terrorism. He is the author of nine books and over two hundred articles, essays, reviews, and short stories.

Image credit: “Books” by Christopher via Flickr


  1. Nice post, and I am glad you mentioned Sarah Worth’s book, which does cite some actual research on this!

  2. Itlaborious to find knowledgeable individuals on this subject, however you sound like you understand what you’re talking about! Thanks

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.