Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



What follows is a guest post by Elijah Millgram.

You can be effective but ridiculous, or effective but a very special sort of unbelievable. And that tells us that some of the most basic distinctions in the domain of practical rationality—that is, of the reasons we invoke when we decide what to do—are matters of aesthetic judgment.

Most of us have seen various of Rube Goldberg’s once very popular drawings; here’s one of a “self-operating napkin” that involves a soup ladle, a parrot, a rocket, and a pendulum, among other components.

Self-operating napkin (Rube Goldberg cartoon with caption)

Rube Goldberg, illustration for self-operating napkin machine, Collier’s Magazine (1931)

And if you look around on the web, you’ll find one after another video homage to his work; this tribute, a construction that turns a page of your newspaper for you, deploys lit fuses, billiard balls, a vase, a smashed laptop, and an animal that I’m guessing is a hamster.

Now, it was naturally the comics page on which, a couple of generations back, Goldberg’s drawings of elaborately roundabout ways of performing simple tasks used to appear, because the public of the time found them spit-take funny. They were funny because they were crazy, and the craziness was all in their very visible instrumental irrationality—which is actually a bit of a puzzle. Continue reading



Descartes and Deckard. “I think, therefore I am.” Sophisticated artificial intelligence. Real memories and implanted memories. Humanity and personhood (and androidhood?).

Philosophers can’t resist the bait Blade Runner lays out for them.

Two recent articles explore philosophical issues in the original film, and of the Blade Runner world.

The first is Lorraine Boissoneault, a writer for Smithsonian Magazine. In her article, she discusses Descartes and Locke, as well as contemporary philosophers like Susan Schneider (UConn), Andrew Norris (UC Santa Barbara), Deborah Knight (Queen’s University), and Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside).

She writes:

Part of the reason for the original movie’s enduring popularity is Deckard’s personal struggle, one that plays out similarly in movies like Her and shows like “Westworld”: Who or what counts as human, especially in a world of advanced technology?

And continues on to explore questions of memory and rationality.

But it’s not just memories or rationality that make a human in Blade Runner. Most importantly of all, according to the Voight-Kampff test, is empathy.

How should we view the empathy test, from a philosophical perspective? Surely Deborah Knight has it right here:

“Emotions themselves will never be a perfect test of humanity: sociopaths are human, too, after all.”

So, yeah, it’s not a great test.

In an article for the Institute of Art and Ideas, Helen Beebee (University of Manchester) also takes up the empathy test. She points out that Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which Blade Runner is loosely based, recognized that this wasn’t a great test for personhood.

In the film [as opposed to the book] we don’t get the suggestion that the purported significance of empathy … is really just a ploy: a way of making everyone think that androids lack, as it were, the essence of personhood, and hence can be enslaved and bumped off with impunity.

Beebee, too, discusses Locke’s theory of personal identity:

He came up with what’s often referred to as the ‘memory theory’ of personal identity: person A (at some time t2) is the very same person as person B (at some earlier time t1) just in case A can remember some of B’s experiences.

Of course philosophers disagree about whether to attribute this theory to Locke, but it’s a provocative starting point for discussion. The article then turns to contemporary philosophers Sydney Shoemaker (Cornell) and Derek Parfit, who passed away early this year:

They appealed to the idea of a ‘quasi-memory’ or q-memory. A q-memory is just like a real memory, except without the requirement that the experience that you q-remember must be a memory of your experience. And the (hotly contested) idea is that we can define personal identity over time in terms of q-memory rather than memory.

So Blade Runner can introduce the important philosophical distinction between memories and q-memories to people who aren’t interested in sitting down to read dozens (or hundreds) of pages of dry philosophical text. Beebee then goes on to explain how q-memories may be able to avoid an objection to Lockean memory-based theories of personal identity.

Both authors suggest that Blade Runner (and therefore also other narrative artworks) can help us familiarize ourselves with philosophical concepts and think through philosophical issues. In that sense, they are a useful pedagogical tool, as well as an extended thought experiment: What might the world really look like with sophisticated artificial intelligence? It’s one thing to conceptualize this question when it’s posed in a philosophy classroom; another to enter into and explore the world of this thought experiment, with all its attendant subtleties and ramifications.

Whatever we think about the philosophical fine points of these discussions, Boissoneault certainly gets it right in her closing remarks:

It’s important for scientists to confer with philosophers … but also for members of the public to think through the repercussions of this type of technology.

Art at least can help us with the latter.

Image credit: “Gaff’s Unicorn” by Andromeda Trade Collective, available for purchase here.

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A philosopher and artist is getting lots of recognition lately, culminating in an upcoming solo show at MoMA. Adrian Piper, who received the Golden Lion from the Venice Biennale in 2015, has enjoyed several shows in the past couple of years, and will now have a major exhibition at MoMA, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016” (March 31 to July 22, 2018), which will then travel to the Hammer Museum in LA (dates being finalized) before going abroad.

From the MoMA press release:

[T]he exhibition, which will be seen in its entirety only at The Museum of Modern Art, will occupy the Museum’s entire sixth floor—the first time that entire level has been devoted to the work of a living artist.


And the MoMA title isn’t just about her art. She has written about Kant’s notion of intuition. And indeed, this isn’t a case where “philosopher” is just tacked on to add some weight to other titles (like all those “artist, model, poet, DJ, and philosopher”s out there now). Piper is hugely research active in philosophy. To get an idea of her philosophical breadth, see some of her work here. She has published on Kant, aesthetics, rationality, race, and non-Western philosophy. According to Wikipedia, Piper was also the first African-American woman to receive tenure in philosophy in the US.

Her conceptual art is centrally concerned with race – with topics like passing as white, exclusion, otherness – as well as issues like sexism, responsibility, and subjectivity. She examines these issues through performance, drawing, collage, installation, and painting.

And for those of you in NYC or nearby who can’t wait until the MoMA solo show can check out her work at the Levy Gorvy Gallery, up until October 21.

See other announcements:




What follows is a guest post by John Rapko about the recent Guggenheim Museum controversy.

The controversy

On Friday, September 22, a friend sent me an e-mail alerting me to an on-line petition. This time the issue was that the Guggenheim Museum in New York City had released a list of the names of the artists and their works to be included in the upcoming show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Among the 150 works were three involving live animals, including a video of an installation by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wherein dogs were strapped into opposing treadmills, where they ran in place, tugged, and snarled at each other to exhaustion. The two other pieces are by artists better-known outside China: a notorious piece by Huang Yong Ping, “Theater of the World”, which shows a large structure wherein many reptiles and insects have been placed, with the animals left to willy-nilly eat each other, fight for space, or make some kind of mutual accommodation; and a video by Xu Bing that shows a boar and a sow, each densely painted with nonsense–Chinese and –Roman characters, mating in a gallery. Thousands of people, including myself after a scanning, were signing the petition. The Guggenheim quickly released a statement urging people to consider the works as a document of their times, and to reflect upon the situation of the artists who were driven to make such works. The signing of the petition only quickened, and by Tuesday, September 26, when the Guggenheim announced that the works would not be shown, supposedly because of the threatening tone of many of the complaints about the show, the petition had garnered over half a million signatories. What had happened? Was it simply a matter of an internet mob hurling electronic threats of violence towards the museum’s employees that forced the otherwise unjustified withdrawal of the works, as the Guggenheim stated? Was the withdrawal further a cowardly capitulation to thugs with an impoverished understanding of animal rights and human rights, indeed “tragic for a modern society”, as the artist Ai Weiwei said? Is this an act of “censorship” violating the artists’ “right to free expression”, as Huang Yong Ping, the artist behind one of the allegedly objectionable works has urged? Or had an inexplicable category mistake been corrected, as implied by the countless objections that “animal torture is not art“?  Continue reading



What follows is a guest post by Shannon M. Mussett (Utah Valley University).

I am an academic philosopher. This means that my contact with my peers consists mainly in electronic communication, or, a few times a year (if I am lucky) a conference—varying in length from a day to a week. If I am very lucky, there may be an occasional workshop peppered here and there throughout the course of a decade.

Academic philosophy conferences consist largely of sitting in ill-lit rooms, on uncomfortable chairs, listening to someone either read a paper at you, or click through power point slides where the gist of the paper is presented to you. (Christy Wampole’s Conference Manifesto pretty much nails it). Afterwards, questions and dialogue follow—which can be more or less lively—depending on many factors, most of which boil down to how much coffee is available and whether or not people are in the pre-or post-lunch coma.

Not all conferences are the same.

Artists, however, do these amazing things called “residencies.” And let me tell you, they have the right idea. Instead of arriving with a finished (or mostly finished) product, they use the residency to develop something entirely new, or to work on something in its burgeoning phases. No one, that is, shows up with something polished. The thought of arriving at a conference with unfinished work is the stuff of nightmares to most academics. Continue reading

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The pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy turn out to be strangely similar.

So starts an essay by AFB’s Thi Nguyen for The Philosophers’ Mag.

The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem. There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.

His wide-ranging essay is ultimately about rock climbing, but touches on dance and proprioception, as well as games, sports, and problem solving. Check out the whole thing here.

Image credit: Mark Doliner via Flickr

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hendersonThe American Society for Aesthetics has sponsored the development of new, annotated reading lists, with an eye to increasing diversity. These are intended for use in teaching, but would make a great reading list for curious minds!

These are publicly available at the ASA website, but Aesthetics for Birds has asked the designers of these reading lists to provide us with brief overviews of what we can find in the documents. That way you, our readers, have a better idea of what you are looking at and what you might want to look for.

First up is “Art and Cultural Heritage” [link to pdf] by Erich Hatala Matthes. Continue reading

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Frances Howard-Snyder (Western Washington University) answers a few short questions about her philosophical fiction posed by Skye Cleary (City College New York) for the APA Blog.

She recounts her experiences at a recent workshop on fiction writing for philosophers.

I particularly liked the idea that fiction writers often deal with quasi-philosophical topics and when they do their treatment could benefit from the skills of philosophers.

And, regarding how professional philosophers’ fiction writing should be treated by universities:

If you [write fiction] well and your work has philosophical content, your department and university ought to treat it as part of your scholarship.

See the whole interview here.

This raises lots of interesting questions. Are there some philosophical topics that are better, or even best, approached through fiction? Can philosophical fiction advance philosophical research? And if so, are philosophers sometimes better positioned to do that than non-philosophers?

What do you think?





Aesthetics for Birds has recently undergone two semi-rebrandings – first last year and again this year. As such, we thought it would be interesting to have a discussion about the nature of brand identities, what rebrandings really are, and how we should feel about them.

What follows is a conversation about these topics between AFB’s Alex King and Thi Nguyen. Continue reading