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The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics
Peter Rickman is inspired with beautiful thoughts by the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.
This is a substantial volume of more than 800 pages and weighing nearly four pounds. Reading it in bed or on the bus is not recommended. Its ugly cover showing part of a plain face challenges our aesthetic judgement. The forty-eight chapters – in fact independent essays by thirty-eight predominately American authors – represent a comprehensive account of philosophical aesthetics practiced within the Anglo-American world. The approach is predominantly indebted to analytic philosophy and focused on contemporary debates on Aesthetics, i.e. developments of the last fifty years. However, this limitation is not a straightjacket. There are inevitably frequent references to Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel and more recent writers on the subject such as Tolstoy, Dewey, Croce, Collingwood and Heidegger.
There are traditional, familiar and pervasive questions about aesthetic experiences and judgements that have received conflicting answers and surface again and again in these essays. There is, for instance, the question whether there is a distinct area for aesthetics defined in terms of specific formal characteristics or whether it is a pervasive feature of life that cannot be separated from living. In other words, can we always distinguish clearly between finding a woman or the portrait of a woman beautiful and finding her sexually attractive? Can we find an article aesthetically pleasing while repelled by its immoral implications?
Another problem is how we can be moved by fictional events and sympathise with characters we know do not exist such as Anna Karenina or the heroine of a soap opera. Moreover, how is it possible for audiences and readers to enjoy being distressed by imaginary tragic events?
More generally; do the same aesthetic criteria apply to natural phenomena and to art? What criteria are there for judging aesthetic value? Are there objective facts we can recognize as relevant, or is it all a matter of subjective feeling – and if the latter, can we account for the widespread belief that there are standards of valuation?
Finally, in my list that does not claim to be exhaustive, there is the question of whether art provides us with some kinds of knowledge, say insight into human nature or moral value?
The forty-eight essays address these related questions from different points of view. Some essays, such as one on humour, and one on metaphor, are only marginally relevant to aesthetics. Others deal specifically with particular arts, music, architecture etc. There are other essays on the history of the subject, the relevance of cognitive psychology, the feminist approach, the question of pornography and the value of popular art.
There is a story – no, not in this book – of a firm advertising for a one-armed economist specialising in oil production. A first class expert on oil production was rejected because he had two arms. When he asked why, he was told, “we do not want an economist who always says ‘on the one hand … and on the other hand’.” One can safely say that most of the contributors to this book were not mutilated in this way. The contributors to this volume are pretty evenhanded. Whilst indicating their own views they painstakingly marshal and analyse conflicting theories. We are confronted with surveys of views held on the aspect of aesthetics highlighted in a particular essay rather than a thesis. Full bibliographies, overlapping with each other, are attached to each essay. Some essays even end with a recognition of unanswered questions and ongoing debates.
This Handbook is a timely response to a growing interest in aesthetics. The concern with art and beauty goes back to Plato and Aristotle and has never ceased to interest philosophers, theoreticians of art, and artists, but it remained a marginal subject compared with Metaphysics, Ethics or Epistemology, and only received the name Aesthetics in the nineteenth century. Now, due to developments in the arts and the merging of intellectual trends such as postmodernism and cultural studies (discussed in some of the essays) Aesthetics has moved into prominence. We are confronted with records of a vast literature. Though I am familiar with some of the philosophers mentioned, for example Nussbaum, Scruton, Wollheim and Warnock and have known personally the founders of cultural studies Hoggart, Thomson and Hall, I was introduced to a large number of authors of whom I had never heard.
To read the book from cover to cover is a little daunting as there is no coordination, no continuity from chapter to chapter. A handbook, I take it, is something to consult and for this purpose the book is admirably suited as it covers a good deal of ground, provides much interesting information and abounds in interesting quotations. Researchers might find some of it useful if they are not frightened by the extent of the ground to be covered and the amount of work already done.
Apart from the many details the book brings to our attention its value lies in reminding us of the importance of the subject that provokes us to thought. Not least important is the reminder that art and the interest in beauty is universal. All human beings, from primitive times and in all parts of the world, aspire to beautify their bodies and their surroundings. There are great cultural and historical differences in the forms this takes and in the standards of valuation applied, but the aspiration seems to be part of human nature.
© Prof. Peter Rickman 2005
Peter Rickman was for many years professor of philosophy and chair of the (now closed) philosophy unit at City University, London.
• The Oxford Handook of Aesthetics ed. by Jerrold Levinson (Oxford University Press 2005) pb £27.50/$45, 838 pages, ISBN 0199279454.