Philosophy of Aesthetics

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Paris: A Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte



Aesthetics owes its name to Alexander Baumgarten who derived it from the Greek aisthanomai, which means perception by means of the senses.

The word aesthetic can be used as a noun meaning "that which appeals to the senses." Someone's aesthetic has a lot to do with their artistic judgement. For example, an individual who wears flowered clothing, drives a flowered car, and paints their home with flowers has a particular aesthetic.

Since actions or behavior can be said to have beauty beyond sensory appeal, aesthetics and ethics often overlap to the degree that his impression is embodied in a moral code or ethical code. Schopenhauer's aesthetics is one developed variation on this theme; Schopenhauer contrasted the contemplation of beauty against the evil world of the Will. The theory of surrealist automatism is extra-aesthetic in that it is supposed to be practiced without (conscious) moral or aesthetic self-censorship.

The writer Ayn Rand assumed a hierarchical nature of philosophy that builds in complexity & dependence from metaphysics through epistemology, ethics & politics to aesthetics ("Philosophy, Who Needs It?", 1974). Aesthetic arguments usually proceed from one of several possible perspectives, i.e.: art is defined by the intention of the artist (as Dewey); art is in the response/emotion of the viewer (as Tolstoy); art is a character of the item itself; art is a function of an object's context (as Danto); or art is imitation (as Plato).

Aesthetic Concepts

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, which evokes some calm sensations and melancholic feelings in most people who contemplate it. Those feelings are actually sensations that emerge in us – the beholder of the painting – rather than intrinsic properties in the figure of the monk, the person seen in the painting.

In his paper ‘Aesthetic Concepts’, Sibley distinguished ‘aesthetic concepts’ from ‘non-aesthetic concepts’.

Aesthetic concepts invovles terms such as "balanced, powerful, dynamic, elegant, melancholy" whereas non aesthetic concepts involves terms such as "red, noisy, square, intelligent, sad". Some may claim that aesthetic concepts and non aesthetic concepts properties are simply both the set of all descriptibe terms, and the difference is illusory. However, Sibley believes the following claims are obvious:

  • Use of aesthetic concepts requires "taste, perceptiveness and sensitivity" whereas non aesthetic concepts requires only "normaly eyes, ears and intelligence".
  • A features depend upon their existence on non aesthetic concepts features
  • He denies that the presence of non aesthetic concepts features can logically imply the presence of an aesthetic feature
  • Judgements upon the existence of aesthetic concepts features can only be perceived (what Sibley calls perceptual proof), believing they are there on good authority is not enough.

To see if Sibley's claims are consistent we need to look at metaphysics. The issue is whether or not aesthetic thought and experience is 'realist', in the sense that we represent aesthetic properties and states of affairs in such thoughts and experiences. If so, 'common-sense' or 'folk aesthetics' has metaphysically dirty hands, though whether or not this common-sense metaphysics is true is another matter. In contrast with realists, there are 'non-realists', who deny that ordinary aesthetic thought and experience have such metaphysical commitments.


Substantiating the orthodox approach (realism) requires answers to at least the following three questions:

What is an Aesthetic-property?

Aesthetic properties are ‘ways of appearing phenomenally’ (Levinson 2001 p. 66). They are ‘certain looks or feels or impressions or appearances that emerge out of lower-order perceptual properties’ (p. 61). They are ‘dispositions to afford such impressions’, or rather ‘supervenient on such dispositions’ (p. 66). There are some non aesthetic properties (which do not form a bounded set) which cause a distinctive look, feel, impression or appearance. Whatever this is, is the aesthetic property.

We can now interpret the sentence "the dancer is graceful" to see what we mean by "properties". Option 1: We could say that there is a phenomenal property (grace) that is caused by the non-aesthetic of the dancer. However, some A terms such as feelings are mental states, not properties of objects. Under this interpretation, the aesthetic property "melancholy" would be ambigious with the non-aesthetic term "sadness". Option 2: We could say that one of the non-aesthetic properties causes observers to have some experience that we call grace. However, this interpretation would mean that grace is an experience, and so we could not perceive grace in other objects such as paintings as we cannot perceive experiences.

What is the relation between non aesthetic-properties and aesthetic-properties?

The orthodox interpretation (realism) is some variety of the following. Aesthetic properties are caused by non-aesthetic properties Aesthetic properties supervene on non-aesthetic properties.

What is the content of the claim ‘This picture is unified?’

The picture possesses a property, named unity. However then it is unclear why we need to perceive the picture in order to grasp this content, which would go against realism.

Social Account

This attack on the orthodox (realist) interpretation of aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties points out the the set of non-aesthetic properties cannot be defined. Size and colour are common examples of non-aesthetic properties, but one could consder redness an aesthetic property of Rothko's paintings or loudness an aesthetic property of Mahler's symphonies. Also, two objects with identical non-aesthetic properties could be considered to have different A properties depending upon things such as geographical location or those looking at them. Meulder Eaton claims that ‘A is an aesthetic property of O (an object or event) if and only if A is an intrinsic property of O and A is culturally identified as a property worthy of attention (i.e., of perception or reflection’). An intrinsic property is defined epistemologically: ‘F is an intrinsic property of O if and only if direct inspection of O is a necessary condition for verifying the claim that O is F.’

What is an aesthetic-property?

Mahler considers aesthetic-properties to be just non-aesthetic-properties to which others direct our attention. This works well with examples such as the loudness of a piece of music, but less well with concepts such as grace which Meulder says are simply experienced, simliar to the view of the orthodox realist position.

What is the relation between non-aesthetic properties and aesthetic-properties?

Under this view aesthetic properties are simply non aesthetic properties this problem disappears, however it depends upon this equality beng correct.

What is the content of the claim ‘This picture is unified?’

Intrinsic properties are perceived by the observer. However, it clearly is possible to to be aware of an objects intrinsic properties without perceiving it ourselves. For example, Sibley claims "to know that a poem is written in iambic pentameter one must read or hear it for oneself" when in fact I could read about the poem in a secondary source.

The "non-realist" solution

Kant, and Sibley among others, would say that aesthetic properties are caused by aesthetic experiences from our senses, such as hearing a "loud" piece of music. Sibley denies that aesthetic properties exist, though aesthetic concepts and features do. He also argues that as psychological laws are so complex that nocombination of non-aesthetic experiences can guarantee an aesthetic experience. However, some aesthetic experiences require certain non-aesthetic features, for example "powerfulnes" may require "noisy". Aesthetic features are depend upon their existence and nature on non-aesthetic features.

What is an aesthetic-propety?

There aren't any. This doesnt feel quite right, as "the dancer is graceful" does seem to have content.

What is the relation between non-aesthetic properties and aesthetic-properties?

The non-aesthetic properties cause a certain kind of experience that causes us to make the utterance.

What is the content of the claim "This picture is unified"?

This is an emotive statement, rather than an aesthetic propositional content. However, it does seem that sentences like "the first movement is melancholy" can be analysed as non-aesthetic.

What limits what it is acceptable for us to say about a work?

Three different questions we need ask about a work.

  • What are the boundaries of the work?
  • What is the correct category in which to place the work?
  • What is an acceptable interpretation of the work?


We could say that for all these questions, the answer is determined by the intentions of the creator. Intentionalism entails that the boundaries and the category of a work are fixed for all time at the moment of the works creation. This seems false, as it appears that the meaning of a work changes across time and across cultures. We could say what would maximise the aesthetic value of the work (which would, however, entirely depend upon the person). We could answer this by denying the meaning does change, or by separating meaning and significance. Also, if an acceptable interpretation of the work is to be determined by the authors intentions (which we find out by asking them) then every work would be interpreted as no more or less than their answers.

Actual intentionalism

The question to ask is ‘What was going on in the mind of the actual person who wrote this?’ (That is, the meaning of the work is determined by the actual intentions of the flesh and blood author.)

Hypothetical intentionalism

The question to ask is ‘What was going on the mind of the person who wrote this, whoever they might be?’ That is, we construct the meaning of the work by constructing the mind of the hypothetical author.

Public Convention

If not determined by the authors intentions, one common answer is that such questions are answered by public convention.

Whatever maximises the aesthetic value of the work

Another alternative to intentionalism is interpreting the aesthetic properties to be whatever maximises our view of the aesthetic value. The problem with this is that the identity of the work then depends on us. We can change it if we think it is better. This violates the intuition that art is something transcendent against which we judge ourselves. It would simply be something that reflected our own self-image.

Expression theories

When talking about art we frequently use the same terms that we use to descirbe emotions. Whilst there is a connection between expression and value they are not the same. Hanslick objected that music ca not express states of affaris, and hence can't express propositions, and hence can't express emotions. Some would say that we can say a piece of music expresses and emotion if the music is conventionally associated with that emotion, however we cannot experience a convention.

The Expression Theory

An appealing solution is to take the words to be referring to the mental state of the artist. The artist feels an emotion that he transmits to the audience by way of the work. This position, generally known as ‘the expression theory’ found a vigorous exponent in Tolstoy: ‘Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them’ (Tolstoy 1898: 123).

There are two separate claims that are part of this position:

  • At the time of creation, the artist was in mental state F.
  • In virtue of possessing the property P, the work expresses F.

The nature of this ‘possession’ is wholly unclear.

The connection is logical.

‘Precisely in virtue of their artistic acts and of the similarity they bear to common kinds of expressions, works of art may serve as expressions of those feelings, emotions, attitudes, moods and/or personal characteristics of their creators which are designated by the anthropomorphic predicates applicable to the art works themselves’. (Sircello 1972: 412; reprinted in Margolis (ed) Philosophy Looks at the Arts). Sircello’s view is that the manifestations of emotion are logically connected to the inner state that caused it. To see a smile is not to see an appearance and infer a happy state of mind, but to see the happy state of mind in the face itself. The ‘act’ and the ‘thing’ are inseparable.

The Local Quality Theory (the cognitive theory)

Probably the most widely accepted in the recent literature. It maintains that expression is to be analysed in terms of expressive qualities which are recognised in works or art. Such qualities can be analysed independently of the state of mind of their creator. They are not logically distinct from other qualities, such as grace, unity or balance, and, like those other qualities, are perceived as part of the form of works of art.

It can be formally states as: Music expresses E iff the music resembles a person expressing E. The question is though, what form of resemblance? Resemblance in terms of appearance and behaviour (Kivy) with the addition of sound (timbral) resemblances (Ridley).

'As we see sadness in the Saint Bernard's face because we see its features as resembling those of our own appropriate to the expression of sadness, we hear sadness in this complex musical line, we hear it as expressive of sadness, because we hear it as a musical resemblance of the gesture and carriage appropriate to the expression of our sadness. It is a “sound map” of the human body under the influence of a particular emotion' (Kivy p. 53).

This theory allows expressive judgements to be truth valued, allows for "dry-eyed" criticism" (that we can make expressive judgements without experiencing the relevant feelings) and provides a rational connection between music and the emotions. However, the concept of resemblance is neither necessary nor sufficient.

'But this cannot be exactly what is happening when I hear “life” in the music. I was at pains, in The Corded Shell, to avoid the suggestion that absolute music is a representation of human expressive behaviour, and achieves is expressiveness by way of representation. And one of my principal reasons for insisting on this was just that, in listening to absolute music we need not be, and often are not, conscious of the “life” in the music, when, by means of it, we hear the expressiveness in the music. If there is something analogous to Wollheim's seeing-in here [which Kivy takes to be a version of aspect perception], it is our hearing the expressive properties in the music: that is what we are fully conscious of in our listening experience. The perception of that analogy to human expressive behavior must lie at some deeper, non-conscious and pervasive level, although we can, of course, bring it to consciousness by analysis and scrutiny if we wish...' (p. 173). ' I have described it, musical expressiveness is an aspect (or an emergent property, or a supervenient property) depending for its character on the structure of musical movement' (Davies p. 256).

But what about the experience itself? Kivy does talk about our 'animating' our expression. Resemblance and convention would be causal antecedents to this mental act: 'Music is expressive of emotions not just because it resembles expressive behaviour, [but] we, for whatever reason, tend to animate our perceptions..' (Kivy p. 62).

The Arousal Theory

A passage of music expresses an emotion E iff it arouses E in its listeners.


  • The connection is not reasonable (response; the judgement lies in the mental state the judgement causes)
  • As there is no propositional content, there cannot be an emotion (response; there is feeling, which doesnt requite propositional content)
  • Nobody would willingly subject themselves to negative emotions
  • Arousal is not necessary
  • Arousal is not sufficient
  • Phenomenology is wrong
  • There is no normativity, hence no possibility of truth or falsity
  • The ‘syringe objection’ to all causal theories

Aaron Ridley

In essence, music is expressive if its melismatic properties arouse an 'empathetic feeling' (melisma is broader than resemblance, in that it includes timbre). What is the nature of the experience? 'It is an experience having perceptual qualities that are qualities not of melisma, or of the perception of it, but of the expressiveness that melisma enables one to experience' (Ridley 1995 p. 121). Here is Ridley's characterisation of mental state: 'A sympathetic response — of sadness say — is related to the music that occasions it as a mode of apprehension of certain qualities in the music, as the character of a melismatic gesture is grasped partly in the sadness that it arouses; and because there is clearly a conceptual relation between the apprehension of something and the thing apprehended, the experience of the former, the sympathetic response, is not an experience of which is separable from the experience of the latter, the musical melisma' (ibid. p. 134-5).

Jerrold Levinson

Levinson defines expression thus: ‘a passage of music P is expressive of an emotion or other psychic condition E iff P, in context, is readily and aptly heard by an appropriately backgrounded listener as the expression of E, in a sui generis, “musical”, manner, by an indefinite agent, the music's persona’ (p. 107).

Kendall Walton

This is another account that seems to have potential. The crucial passage, from Walton, is from his paper 'What is abstract about the art of music?': ‘We mentioned the possibility that music is expressive by virtue of imitating behavioral expressions of feeling. Sometimes this is so, and sometimes a passage imitates or portrays vocal expressions of feelings. When it does, listeners probably imagine (not necessarily consciously, and certainly not deliberately) themselves hearing someone's vocal expressions. But in other cases they may, instead, imagine themselves introspecting, being aware of their own feelings. Hearing sounds may differ too much from introspecting for us comfortably to imagine of our hearing the music that it is an experience of being aware of our states of mind. My suggestion is that we imagine this of our actual introspective awareness of auditory sensations.’ (Walton 1988 p. 359)

Expressive works, says Walton, 'do not actually arouse feelings but they do induce the appreciator to imagine himself experiencing them' (Walton 1988 p. 360). The music induces the listener to imagine himself feeling emotion; the connection is causal and not rational. To that extent, Walton is an arousal theorist.

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