Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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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

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The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) seeks a new area editor for Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art.

The IEP is a great resource and well worth contributing to. From their “About” page:

At present, the IEP has over a million visitors per month, and about 20 million page views per year. The Encyclopedia is free of charge and available to all users of the Internet world-wide.

The primary tasks for IEP area editors are:

  1. maintaining a list of desired articles in their area,
  2. recruiting authors for articles,
  3. coordinating peer evaluation of articles submitted,
  4. keeping accurate records of which articles are in which phase of production, and
  5. assuring that final manuscripts comply with the author guidelines.

For more detailed guidelines, see here.

Anyone interested in the position should contact Jim Fieser at

If you’re interested in helping the IEP, but don’t have the time to devote to being an editor, here are some options.

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Comic artist Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal talks about art:


And the aftercomic, for those of you interested in questions about representation and depiction:


And the referenced work, for your viewing pleasure, which has hilariously become Cesena’s profile pic on his Wikipedia page:


According to Wikipedia: “It was widely said that when Cesena complained to the Pope, the pontiff joked that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell and the portrait would have to remain.”

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Welcome back to a new year at Aesthetics for Birds!

This year will bring all sorts of new things for the blog, but the most exciting is that we have five new collaborators! With these philosophers on board, we will be able to provide you with much broader, more diverse, and more frequent content. Other changes and new features will accompany this addition, but first the introductions.

For those of you who are new to AFB, I will begin by introducing myself and Rebecca. (For more about AFB, visit our About page.)

Alex King (Editor-in-Chief and Contributor; handles: aestheticsforbirds*, alexforbirds)
Alex (that’s me) owns and is editor-in-chief of AFB. She is currently Assistant Professor at University at Buffalo (= SUNY Buffalo). Her research concerns the relationships among practical, moral, and aesthetic normativity. She also works on ‘ought implies can’ and issues surrounding high and low art (see her post on this topic), but likes thinking about all sorts of different issues across aesthetics and art.

Rebecca Victoria Millsop (Assistant Editor and Contributor; handle: rebeccavictoriamillsop)
Rebecca recently received her PhD from MIT’s philosophy department and is now happily employed as a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island. Her research interests include aesthetics and philosophy of art, metaphysics, philosophical logic, philosophy of food, and the work of Immanuel Kant. She’s especially interested in the normative primacy of aesthetic experience in explaining the metaphysical nature of art. She is both an academic and an artist, maintaining an artistic practice focused on non-representative, sculptural painting.

Next, our newest assistant editor and contributor:

C Thi Nguyen (Assistant Editor and Contributor; handle: rorschah)
Thi is Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University. He wrote his dissertation at UCLA on moral epistemology and the epistemology of disagreement. He works right now includes social epistemology and value epistemology, including work on the nature of echo chambers. Philosophical interests include issues in the objectivity of aesthetic judgment, and the nature and purpose of aesthetic criticism. His current research interest is developing an aesthetics of games. He’s a founding editor of the Journal of the Philosophy of Games. His most recent publication in aesthetics was The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, which was really about all the ways we have to trust each other in our aesthetic lives. Also check out this recent essay on the aesthetics of rock climbing. For his complete publications, see here.

And last, but definitely not least, are our four new contributors:

Roy T. Cook (Contributor; handle: roytcook)
Roy is CLA Scholar of the College and John M. Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He works primarily in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of (especially popular) art – sometimes all at once. He is the author of The Yablo Paradox: An Essay on Circularity (Oxford 2014) and Key Concepts in Philosophy: Paradoxes (Polity 2013); the editor of The Arche Papers on the Mathematics of Abstraction (Springer 2007); and co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Frank Bramlett & Aaron Meskin), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick by Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach). He enjoys thinking seriously about the art forms he engaged with as a teenager: video games, punk rock, superhero comics, tattoos, and LEGO. [ed. note: If you don’t get enough of him here at AFB, check out his regular column “Paradoxes and Puzzles” at the Oxford University Press blog.]

Nick Stang (Contributor; handle: nickstang)
Nick Stang lives in the great, cold city of Toronto, Ontario, where he’s an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He spends most of his non-aesthetics time thinking about metaphysics – what it is, how it might be possible – mainly from the perspective of Kant and Hegel. He recently wrote a book about Kant. In aesthetics, he has very wide ranging interests. Unsurprisingly, he is acutely interested in what various Dead Germans thought about art: Kant, Hegel, Gadamer, Heidegger, and others. But he’s also interested in more contemporary discussions about the value of art and aesthetic experience. The artforms he’s engaged with most in his life are novels, operas, movies, and long-form TV, so he expects to be talking about them a lot on AFB. His fondest wish is to be Stanley Cavell.

Matt Strohl (Contributor; handle: strohltopia)
Matt is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, and he specializes in Ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics. Much of his research has centered on Aristotle’s theory of pleasure and Ancient Greek theories of pleasure in general. He’s also extremely interested in film, television, food, and music, and these interests have motivated and shaped his approach to aesthetics. He’s been working on questions about horror, negative emotional response to art, moralist critiques of rap, food authenticity, and the normative implications of cultural appropriation (in collaboration with Thi Nguyen). Recently he’s started thinking about genre and its role as an enabling condition for creativity and artistic achievement. [ed. note: If you don’t get enough of him here at AFB, you can check out his blog, which contains mostly his thoughts about TV and movies – for instance, his recent post “55 Nicolas Cage Performances, Ranked by Cage Factor”.)

Mary Beth Willard (Contributor; handle: mbwillard)
Mary Beth [ed. note: no hyphen!] is Associate Professor at Weber State University, which is in Ogden, Utah. Her main areas of research are in metaphysics, including work on simplicity, and aesthetics, where she has broad interests but writes about street art and public art. (AOS: plainly needs to focus.) She loves the philosophical community that’s developed in aesthetics, as it’s one of the most welcoming, creative, and fun groups in the discipline.

We’re all looking forward to engaging more with you and providing you with lots of cool and interesting stuff to think about. And as always, if you have questions, comments, or suggestions, send an email to

*A note about handles: “aestheticsforbirds” is the blog’s main handle, not Alex’s personal one. Look for things like announcements, links, guest posts, and anything not written by a contributor (for example, entries in our 100 x 100 x 100 series).

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Philosopher: C. Thi Nguyen, Utah Valley University

Artwork: Monument Against Fascism, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, 1986. As Neo-Fascism was on the rise in the city, the Municipal Council of Hamburg-Harburg commissioned this monument: a 12 meter tall steel column, clad in lead. The monument invited visitors to sign it by engraving, hammering, and pounding into its sides. The column was slowly lowered into the ground over eight years, until, in October 1993, it disappeared entirely. It gathered over 70,000 signatures. Now only the top surface of the column is visible, flush with the ground.

The column was accompanied by this text: “We invite the citizens of Harburg, and visitors to the town, to add their names here next to ours. In doing so we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this 12-metre tall lead column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day it will have disappeared completely, and the site of the Harburg Monument against Fascism will be empty. In the end it is only we ourselves who can stand up against injustice.”

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, Monument Against Fascism, 1986

Monument against Fascism 1986-1993 text panelEsther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, Monument Against Fascism, 1986 c

(photos courtesy of Esther Shalev-Gerz)

Words: What more is there to say? Every time I see these pictures and read that text, I almost cry. It is unbearably potent. Why is it so important that the monument disappear? Why is it so important that it start so bold and tall? The text says it is a call to action. The Gerzes said it was a counter-monument, against the fascistic tendencies inherent in all monuments. It refuses to honor. James Young says by vanishing, it remembers a vanished people. But there’s something more. To stand there, with that great column and all those signatures buried beneath you…

(More information and more.)

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Philosopher: Aaron Meskin, University of Leeds

Artwork: Oishinbo (1983-2014). Japanese manga series written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki. Seven thematically-organized anthologies published in English by Viz Media as Oishinbo: A la Carte.

Words: What does the aesthetic appreciation of food consist in? How do various values interact in the domain of food? How can food sustain cultural identity? Some of the most interesting explorations of these issues I know of are found in this gurume (gourmet) manga. The comic is structured around father-son conflict and a long-running menu competition. It is insightful and funny, sentimental and wise. As the artist and gourmet Kaibara Yūzan says in the first volume, ‘The most important thing in raising food to the level of an art form is to touch the hearts of those who eat it.’

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Google Translate’s Emergent Poetry

Some of you will be familiar with computer poetry, poetic compositions generated by computers using algorithms. Some of you may even be familiar with computer prose, as the book The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed (text here). There are lots of things to say about this. Who’s the author? Is it really poetry? And what does it say if computer poetry passes the Turing test?

Last week, I stumbled upon something new in this neighborhood, care of Google Translate. You might think this would be generated by inputting something funny (but promising if you think about it) like assembly instructions or political speeches–or even something translated into a different language, then translated back. Instead, this Google Translate poetry takes as input a single, repeated Japanese hiragana character. As you can see above, the returns are surreal and delightful. (For all of these, I’ve used ‘ke’, け.)


See here and here for more examples.

For a little background, hiragana is a syllabary, so it’s not like Chinese characters where, roughly speaking, each character is a word, and these are subsequently built up into other words. An individual hiragana character can be a word, but this is also true in English with ‘a’ and ‘i’. And, like English, the meaning of the characters are not somehow built into the meaning of any word containing them. (The meaning of ‘a’ is not built into the meaning of all words that contain that letter.)

This fact about hiragana makes the results all the more interesting. In fact, you don’t need to limit yourself to hiragana to get these outputs. At his blog Riddled, Smut Clyde uses all sorts of different repeated syllables and repeated letters to generate such poetry.

You can also get different results by switching up spacing, returns, hyphens, and so on. Here’s an example using spaces.


The Philosophy

Philosophically speaking, it’s a little different from traditional computer-generated poetry, which often takes a mass of text as an input in order to generate something new and sometimes in a similar style. Here, the program (Google Translate) is not intended to really generate anything. It’s meant to convert some existing meanings into roughly synonymous existing meanings. (It would actually be contrary to the goal if new meanings were created.) But what we see in the above examples is meaning that just sort of emerges out of language goo. It’s as if we’d shaken a tree and its twigs and leaves fell into a meaningful pattern, or if we discovered a poem floating on the top of a bowl of Alpha-Bits cereal. We might end up shaking a lot of trees to find something good, but there is a sense in which we didn’t create the thing that comes out.

I don’t have any position on this stuff. Maybe it’s a collaborative, co-authored work. Maybe we who dub the final thing ‘poetry’ are the real authors. Or maybe it’s just not poetry at all. Maybe there’s nothing philosophically controversial here. But even that would be kind of surprising, I think. In any case it’s a fun example to think about. And so much fun to play around with, too.

I’ll say one thing, after having messed around with it a little bit: As the one who enters the characters, you have some control over what comes out. You can exercise this control to varying degrees, being more hands-on (inserting spaces and punctuation, cutting and pasting, determining which lines are more or less interesting/poetic/provocative) or more hands-off (entering virtually random-length strings punctuated by occasional line returns). The more hands-on it gets, the more it feels like a collaboration, as you get inspired by what excellent random things pop out (“Welcome to the place where you can sit down with your birthday daughter”??). The more hands-off it gets, the more it feels like you’re just stumbling upon some surprisingly meaningful twigs.

Here’s a final challenge (or concession?), in the form of a one-line poem, very poetically using ‘i’ (い):


– Alex

(via Language Log)

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Philosopher: Erin Beeghly, University of Utah

Artwork: Las Hermanas Iglesias, Nude Suits, 2011 – present.  Salvaged acrylic/wool yarn, pre-purposed zippers and buttons, digital prints. In collaboration with the artists’ mother—Bohild Iglesias— who hand knit the nude suits, complete with armpit and pubic hair. The artists—Lisa and Janelle Iglesias—have added embroidered details including birthmarks, scars, and tattoos.

(This project is documented in an on-going series of photographs in different landscapes. The first installment in the series (selected photos included below) was made while on a residency in Tasmania in 2011. Here is an interview with the artists about their work.)




Words: When I met the Iglesias sisters, they told me: “our mother irons her bed sheets.” It struck me as old-fashioned, charming. As Nude Suits attests, their mother also knits anatomically correct bodysuits for performance art. Look at these photos, and one sees only the daughters. They exude wit; they are off on adventures. Where is their mother? I imagine her creating those second skins—an armor that renders her daughters invincible yet vulnerable. Absent though present, she is complicit in these absurd Eden-esque visions, complicit too in making her daughters’ bodies the site of joyous feminist resistance.