Peter Lamarque. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with aesthetic experience and the fundamental principles of art and criticism. It is distinct from the history of art and the practice of art criticism, although its own history follows a path parallel to both. It is not an empirical study of the psychology or sociology of art, nor is it the same as aestheticism, which names a particular attitude to aesthetic matters, exemplified by the fin-de-siècle “art for art’s sake” movement. There is no need to be an “aesthete” to engage in aesthetics. In what follows, a brief history of the subject will be outlined from its eighteenth-century foundations, back through earlier anticipations from the classical period, and on to the modern legacy. Then an analytical survey of contemporary trends and current issues will be offered.
Aesthetics in the European tradition, conceived as philosophical inquiry into the experience of beauty, acquired its name and essential nature in the eighteenth century, even though cognate concerns had been debated in Europe for two millennia before that. The term aesthetics, from the Greek aesthēsis (perception), was coined, in roughly its modern sense, in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762), a German philosopher who sought to develop a “science of sensitive cognition.” Baumgarten’s unfinished book Aesthetica was the first to bear this new term in its title. In fact the term took some time to catch on and was not established in Great Britain, for example, until the 1830s. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), perhaps the most influential of all aestheticians, was slow to adopt the new usage, remarking in the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787) that “The Germans are the only people who currently make use of the word ‘aesthetic’ in order to signify what others call the critique of taste.” In that same passage Kant lambastes what he describes as “the abortive attempt made by Baumgarten … to bring the critical treatment of the beautiful under rational principles.” But whatever its name—aesthetics or critique of taste—a distinctive inquiry gathered pace through the eighteenth century and came to define what is now universally acknowledged as the field of aesthetics. What are the characteristics of this new inquiry?
Judgments of Taste
Several developments in the eighteenth century form the foundations of modern European aesthetics. One is a growing interest in judgments of taste, notably how attributions of beauty are grounded. Is beauty an objective quality of nature itself or is it merely a projection of the mind? An important impetus for this debate was the writing of Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), third earl of Shaftesbury, whose Neoplatonist work Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) presents the view that beauty, like goodness, resides in the harmony of the natural world, as created by God, and that humans can immediately discern such beauty (or goodness) by an “inward eye” or “moral sense.” Furthermore, the enjoyment of beauty has a disinterested quality distinct from the desire of possession. The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), adopted the notion of “moral sense,” including the concomitant sense of beauty, and sought in detail to show how beauty, grounded in “uniformity amidst variety,” could be the object of inter-subjectively valid judgments. David Hume’s (1711-1776) influential essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” first published in his Four Dissertations (1757), gives explicit focus to “taste” as a capacity for judging beauty, and while emphasizing that beauty “is no quality in things themselves,” nevertheless finds a “standard of taste” in the joint verdict of qualified judges. Hume’s focus is on taste in cultural matters, especially poetry, rather than natural beauty, but judgments about art and nature were seldom at this stage differentiated. In Kant’s definitive contribution to aesthetics, the first part of his Critique of Judgment (1790), we find many of the threads of the previous debates subtly interwoven. Kant proposes, in contrast to Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, a clear divide between moral and aesthetic judgments, highlighting the role of disinterestedness in the latter; he steers a path between the avowed subjectivity of beauty and the justifiable aspiration of universality in judgments about beauty; and he distinguishes natural beauty from the beauty of art. For Kant a “pure judgment of taste” rests on a universally communicable, disinterested pleasure in the appearance of an object apart from any conceptualization of that object.
A second feature that characterizes the birth of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century is also closely associated with Kant. This is the interest given to the sublime in addition to the beautiful. Kant’s account of the sublime, in the Critique of Judgment, as well as in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1763), is again definitive. The sublime rests on the vastness and overwhelming power of nature and the awe that these inspire in humans. Thunder and lightning, hurricanes and volcanoes, towering mountains and crashing waterfalls are judged sublime and induce a mix of fear and pleasure. Kant’s own discussion is complex, distinguishing the “mathematical sublime” (vastness) and the “dynamical sublime” (power), and relating response to the sublime with reflection on the greatness of reason as “a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense.” The pleasure of the sublime derives from awareness that, in spite of physical frailty in the face of terrifying nature, humans remain superior as rational and moral beings. Interest in the sublime did not originate in the eighteenth century, and discussions often referred back to the literary treatise On the Sublime, attributed to “Longinus” from the first century C.E., although the principal focus in that work is not the awesomeness of nature so much as the sublime style in rhetoric. Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was an important precursor to Kant’s discussion and developed the idea that aesthetic responses stemmed from universal predispositions in human nature.
A third relevant factor in the foundations of aesthetics was the emergence of a conception of the fine arts (beaux arts) as belonging to a single category. The seminal work was Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe (1746; Fine arts reduced to a single principle) by Abbé Charles Batteux (1713-1780). This work listed the fine arts, whose aim is pleasure, as music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and dance. In another category, those arts that combine pleasure and usefulness, he puts eloquence and architecture, while theater is deemed a combination of all the arts. The “single principle” is “the imitation of beautiful nature.” Few followed Batteux in stressing imitation as the definitive element in art, but by the time of Kant’s discussion in the Critique of Judgment, the notion of the fine arts was taken for granted. Kant himself offered a quite different common principle of fine art—that of genius—anticipating an aesthetic conception associated with Romanticism. Genius, for Kant, is “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given” and fine art, he insists, “is only possible as a product of genius.”
Conditions in eighteenth-century Europe seemed entirely conducive to the flourishing of aesthetics as an inquiry into the principles of beauty and the fine arts. Marxist historians offer a partial explanation in terms of the rise of a confident and prosperous middle class with the time and inclination to indulge a love of beauty and the display of “sensibility,” “refinement,” and taste. Notions of individuality and subjectivity, central to Enlightenment thought, developed in this century, as did notions of a common human nature on which universal judgments of value might be grounded. It should be emphasized, though, that many aspects of aesthetic inquiry long predate the eighteenth century. A summary survey of these is necessary to map out any adequate history of aesthetics, prior to exploring the legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Both Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) have extensive and influential discussions of art and beauty, and there is a clear sense that in many cases they were contributing to debates already well established in ancient Greek culture. Plato, for example, famously refers to the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy. When Batteux, as we have seen, uses the term imitation to characterize a feature common to the fine arts he is self-consciously evoking the notion of mimesis, central to ancient Greek thought about the arts. The precise meaning of mimesis, sometimes translated as “imitation,” sometimes “representation,” is disputed. Undoubtedly Plato often uses the term with negative connotations, as when, in the Timaeus, he refers to poets as a “tribe of imitators.” In book ten of the Republic, Plato gives an unflattering account of a painter, whose picture of a bed is twice removed from reality being a mere “imitation” of a carpenter’s bed, which itself is a copy of an ideal form. Plato’s constant worry about mimetic art, especially poetry, was that it dealt in appearance or illusion, thus being both epistemologically and morally suspect. It was the Neoplatonist Plotinus (205-270 C.E.), writing over five hundred years later, in the Enneads, who showed how Plato’s metaphysics of forms could be reconciled with a positive conception of artistic mimesis. Plotinus argued that art, by directly imitating the forms themselves, could aspire to an even greater beauty than that found in nature and thus achieve the highest truthfulness.
This debate about the truth of art resonates through the centuries. Plato’s pupil Aristotle addressed the matter in his treatise Poetics, a discussion of the nature and status of poetic tragedy that has become one of the seminal texts in Western aesthetics. For Aristotle the desire to imitate is both natural and a source of pleasure. Tragedy is an imitation of action and attains, according to Aristotle, thereby contradicting Plato, a status somewhat akin to philosophy in presenting universal truths about what “such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do.” Aristotle went on to argue that mimesis in tragedy had other values as well, including the pleasurable stirring of emotion, notably pity and fear, leading to an ultimate purgation (katharsis) or cleansing. The perplexing problem of what makes the viewing of tragedy a pleasurable experience is the subject of a subtle essay by David Hume, “Of Tragedy” (1757).
Although the ancient Greek philosophers had much to say about each of the individual art forms—drama, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture—it seems they possessed no concept equivalent to fine art. The term technē is sometimes translated as “art” but is closer to “craft” in the modern sense, denoting a specialized skill. For Plato the highest “art” is the statecraft taught to the young guardians in the Republic, which intriguingly he sometimes compares to painting, coloring sculpture, or writing a tragedy. Perhaps, though, the main reason for locating the origins of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century rather than in ancient Greek philosophy is that there is no systematic attempt in the latter to address interconnected issues about the role of beauty and the arts in human experience. Both Plato and Aristotle write about beauty (to kalon) and, although disagreeing on its metaphysical status, broadly agree on the marks of beauty: “measure and proportion” (Plato), “order and symmetry and definiteness” (Aristotle). But such observations are integrated into more general discussions, and neither philosopher felt the need for a distinctive branch of philosophy given over to aesthetic concerns.
In subsequent centuries, up to the eighteenth century, a similar story could be told of isolated, sometimes brilliant, sometimes hugely influential, contributions, but there was no sustained attempt (as epitomized by Kant’s Critique of Judgment) to establish a philosophy of the beautiful. Often the legacy of debates from the Greeks is in evidence, few more so than Plato’s attack on poetry. A deep ambivalence is manifest throughout the history of the Christian Church from the early church fathers through the Middle Ages toward secular poetry and in particular drama. Plato’s concerns about the falsehood and seductiveness of poetry and its antipathy to reason found an analogue in Christian thought in the profane and the sacred. Periodic defenses of poetry were not uncommon. Sir Philip Sidney’s (1554-1586) Defense of Poesie (1595) takes on the Puritans and is an eloquent argument for the educative and edificatory benefits of poetry. Curiously, in spite of the extraordinary flourishing of the arts in the European Renaissance, the two hundred years between 1400 and 1600 saw little sustained philosophical debate about the arts or beauty. Treatises on individual arts by the likes of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) were concerned more with theoretical questions about aim and technique than with abstract philosophical investigation. These would not standardly be classified as works in aesthetics, in the stricter sense that emerged after Baumgarten.
The Growth of Modern Aesthetics
A striking development in aesthetics after the eighteenth century was a gradual shift of interest from inquiries into beauty per se and “judgments of taste” to specifically the philosophy of art. Nineteenth-(and late-eighteenth-) century aesthetics was largely dominated by German philosophers, including Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). A way of writing about art developed that was distinctively philosophical and that contrasted with explorations of art, however theoretical, by artists themselves. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the magisterial Lectures on Fine Art, given in the 1820s by the paramount German aesthetician Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831), a work comparable in importance and influence to Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Hegel afforded art a central place in his metaphysical system of absolute idealism, locating it, along with religion and philosophy, as one of the modes of “absolute spirit” whereby the mind comes to know itself. Hegel retold the history of art in terms of changing relations between spiritual content (idea) and sensuous medium: in symbolic art, characterized by Egyptian and Indian art, the medium dominates the idea; in classical art, from ancient Greece, idea and medium are in perfect balance; in romantic art, from Christian art onward, the idea reaches its ascendancy, manifesting “infinite subjectivity.” Hegel proposed a hierarchy of individual arts, from architecture to poetry, and suggested, somewhat obscurely, that the capacity for further development had been exhausted (the “death of art”).
Hegel showed par excellence how a philosophy of art could be fully integrated into wider philosophical speculation, and increasingly in the history of aesthetics theories of the arts (or of beauty more generally) would come to be discriminated in terms of the philosophical frameworks within which they are couched. Idealism, either Kantian or Hegelian, had a major impact well into the twentieth century, notably in works like the Italian Benedetto Croce’s Estetica come scienze dell’ espressione e linguistica generale (1902; Aesthetics as science of expression and general linguistics) and the English Robin George Collingwood’s Principles of Art (1937). Both Collingwood and Croce identified the true work of art not with its physical manifestation but with an inner state of mind seeking expression. Other philosophical outlooks produced their own distinctive aesthetic theories. Phenomenologists, such as Roman Ingarden (1893-1970) and Mikel Dufrenne (1910-1995), give attention to the properties of an “aesthetic object” in relation to the acts of consciousness of artist and audience. John Dewey (1859-1952), the American pragmatist philosopher, in one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century aesthetics, Art As Experience (1934), stresses the origin of art in the everyday world of human action. For Marxist aestheticians, the context in which art must be explained is social and economic, a complete rejection of the premises of the idealist. Contemporary analytical aesthetics, that is, aesthetics influenced by the developments of logic and conceptual analysis in the early to middle parts of the twentieth century, gives less focus to the social or psychological aspects of art as to questions about what kind of entities art works are and what kinds of properties they possess.
Contemporary Trends and Issues
Increasingly from the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century aesthetics grew in stature as an established branch of philosophy in both the Anglo-American (analytic) and European (Continental) schools of philosophy. The subject was widely taught in universities and learned societies devoted to the subject—the American Society for Aesthetics and societies from the individual European nations—had strong support. Aesthetics was well integrated into mainstream philosophical inquiry with aestheticians drawing on work in, for example, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Indeed the borrowings go both ways, as sometimes technical work in aesthetics—on fictionality, aesthetic properties, ontology of art, interpretation, narrative—has contributed to an advance of understanding in other philosophical fields.
Twenty-first-century concerns in aesthetics might be seen as falling into two broad areas: philosophy of art, on the one hand, and on the other the investigation of aesthetic experience more generally, including experience of the natural world. Philosophy of art encompasses theoretical questions about the nature of art itself, how works of art are distinguished from other artifacts, what values art embodies, and also the special qualities of individual art forms, not only the traditional “fine arts” but other arts such as film, photography, and “mass art.” Inquiries into aesthetic experience go beyond the experience of art and investigate human responses to beauty and other aesthetic qualities wherever they are manifested.
Philosophy of Art
When analytic philosophers began to turn their attention to aesthetics in the 1940s, one of their early concerns was to analyze the concept of art itself. The idea of providing a definition of art, one that covered all art forms, had not been a central preoccupation of aesthetics in previous centuries. Leo Tolstoy in What Is Art? (1898) had proposed that art involves the transmission of feeling from artist to audience; and other kinds of “expression” views, ultimately deriving from romantic conceptions of art, were developed by Croce and Collingwood. More often than not, those who sought an “essence” for art had, implicitly if not explicitly, one particular art form in mind, for example, painting or poetry. Thus the idea that art is essentially a “representation,” a descendent of classical “mimetic” theories, foundered on “nonrepresentational” arts, including music and all abstract art. Clive Bell’s claim in Art (1914) that what is essential to art is “significant form” and the arousing of “aesthetic emotion” was more convincing about modernist painting, which he championed, than about the realist novel. Analytic philosophers felt the need to go back to basics. Could there be any property that all forms of art—painting, music, literature, sculpture, dance, drama—had in common, a property possession of which was both necessary and sufficient for something to be art?
Initially many philosophers were skeptical that art has such an “essence” and indeed that the concept of art lent itself to strict definition. In an influential paper from 1956, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” Morris Weitz (1916-1981) argued that there could be no definition of art because “art” is an “open concept,” allowing for radically new kinds of instantiation. Weitz was one of the first philosophers to recognize the difficulty posed for philosophy of art by the rapid proliferation of art movements in the twentieth century, from modernism to dadaism. If the “readymades” (a urinal, a snow shovel, a bottle rack, etc.) of the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) could count as art, then traditional conceptions would have to be revised. Weitz proposed that all that binds together the disparate products called “art” are loosely connected “family resemblances,” a notion drawn from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953).
However, not all philosophers agreed with Weitz’s anti-essentialism, and a swing back toward essentialist accounts was evident in the final quarter of the twentieth century. What is distinctive about these developments is that rather than seeking some intrinsic property shared by all works of art—such as “beauty,” “form,” “representation,” “expression”—they highlighted extrinsic or relational properties of a social, historical, or “institutional” kind. The American philosopher Arthur Danto (b. 1924) was one of the first to develop this line of thought, suggesting that what makes something art is not what it looks like but what role it plays in an “artworld.” This is a striking repudiation of a long-standing premise that art must engage aesthetic perception. Following Danto, “institutional” definitions were proposed whereby an object becomes art only by virtue of having that status conferred on it by an institution or artworld or “art circle,” consisting of a loose-knit community of artists, critics, and art appreciators. There is no suggestion that each putative work comes before a panel of experts for authentication but only that there is an essentially social aspect to the existence of art. A related species of art theory makes explicit a historical dimension to art. According to these accounts, to acquire the status of art, an object must be connected in some way with works previously accepted as art: for example, they must be intended to be regarded in ways that earlier works were regarded, or there must be some narrative that links the present with the past.
The immense variety of art forms poses a problem not just for definition but for the more metaphysical question of what kinds of entities art works are. It is common to postulate a deep divide between those works that are unique physical objects, like paintings, carved sculptures, or buildings, and those that allow for multiple instances, like musical and literary works, films, prints, and photographs. While a painting can be destroyed in a fire, it is less easy to see how a symphony might be destroyed (it could, for example, survive the loss of the original score). There is considerable philosophical interest in pursuing the right “ontology” for art, that is, the mode of existence for different kinds of works. Some philosophers are anxious to present a unitary view, in contrast to the binary one just outlined, and it has been suggested that a painting might in principle also be a “type” with multiple instances, the original canvas being no more significant than an original score. Others have argued that the true identity of any work rests not in the final product but in the complex performance that brought it about. This theory recognizes that facts about a work’s provenance are vitally relevant both to what the work is and how it should be appreciated.
A significant trend in contemporary philosophy of art has been to focus on particular art forms. There are recognized branches of aesthetics now labeled philosophy of music, philosophy of literature, philosophy of film, and so on. This tendency has brought aesthetics closer to critics and practitioners within the arts. Often, distinctive issues arise within these more narrowly defined areas. For example, philosophers of music have asked how music can express emotion; whether profundity is possible in music; whether musical works are created or discovered; and what it is to understand music, without assuming that musical understanding is the same as understanding literature or painting. In an important book, The Aesthetics of Music (1997), Roger Scruton has argued that music is nonrepresentational, requires a special kind of “intentional” understanding, and yields in its essential musical features only to metaphorical description.
In the philosophy of literature much attention has been given to fictionality, drawing on work in the philosophy of language. How is fictional discourse distinct from nonfictional? Can works of imaginative or fictional literature be bearers of truth (a question familiar from Plato and Aristotle)? One especially persistent problem concerns emotional responses to fiction: on the assumption that to feel, for example, fear and pity, one must believe that the objects of the emotions are real, how can an audience respond in this way (as Aristotle requires for tragedy) when it is known that the objects are mere fictions? Yet another important debate about literature—which extends to all the arts—concerns criteria for interpretation. Is the critic’s role to recover an artist’s intention or is meaning a product of cultural and literary convention?
In the philosophy of the visual arts, a fundamental question is how depiction in two dimensions can represent three-dimensional objects in space. The preliminary thought that pictures must resemble their subject in order to depict them is both difficult to make precise (in some respects anything resembles anything) and open to counterexamples, in the form of caricatures, cubist portraits, and symbolic representations (for example, Christ depicted as a lamb). Some philosophers reject resemblance altogether as an explanation of pictures, preferring to stress the conventional, quasi-linguistic nature of representation. Kendall Walton, in his influential Mimesis As Make-Believe (1990), argues that viewers of pictures play a “game of make-believe” in which they make believe they see objects depicted when in fact they see only paint and canvas. Others have followed Richard Wollheim in supposing that depiction can be explained as a species of “seeing-in” or “seeingas.” Philosophical explorations of the visual arts have extended to include film and photography, and developments in the aesthetics of film have challenged theoretical approaches based on Marxism and psychoanalysis.
Across all the arts, the issue of what makes art in itself valuable and what criteria are available for evaluating particular works has posed a perennial conundrum. Some aestheticians see value judgments as relative, culture-bound, or “ideological” and have sought to play down their significance. Others have connected the value of art with the very conception of art itself. If art is mimesis, then good art is judged for how well it holds a “mirror to nature,” but if art is expression then it is judged for the depth and sincerity of the artist’s vision. In a subtle treatment of the question, Values of Art (1995), Malcolm Budd argues that the value of a work of art as a work of art is the intrinsic value of the experience the work offers. This is a noninstrumental value, and “experience” is left sufficiently wide to include traditional cognitive values such as moral insight.
There are important currents of thought in contemporary aesthetics that are different from, even opposed to, those based in analytic philosophy. The notion of the “death of the author,” promoted by Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), has been influential not merely for its impact on literary criticism but also as part of a general poststructuralist skepticism about meaning and subjectivity. In rejecting the notion of a unified autonomous self as the origin of meaning and emphasizing “intertextuality” and the priority of writing over speaking, poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) present a direct challenge to what they view as the “logocentrism,” or focus on logic and reasoning, of analytic philosophers. Another challenge to core assumptions of traditional aesthetics comes from feminist aesthetics, a growing and influential development in the subject. There are many different, sometimes conflicting, strands to feminist approaches, but central ideas include a reshaping of the artistic canon to include more works by women; an emphasis on gendered responses to art in opposition to notions of universal aesthetic experience; a relocating of art production into its social and personal contexts and a tendency to downplay formalist approaches and concomitant conceptions like “disinterestness”; and the promotion of revised criteria for art evaluation. Marxists, like feminists, roundly reject the notion that art exists in a realm of pure experience or pleasure. Aestheticians like Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), of the Frankfurt School, follow general Marxist precepts in attributing to art deeply social meanings, either reinforcing or resisting prevailing ideologies. Aesthetics itself has been challenged as a set of interests and values inescapably imbued with (bourgeois) ideology.
Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Qualities
Aesthetics, as noted earlier, is not always concerned with art. The core of Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment had little to do with art but rather with the special kind of pleasure taken in the appearance of things (of any kind). There are longstanding debates over whether there exists a distinctive “aesthetic attitude” or “aesthetic experience” associated with contemplating an object “for its own sake,” without interest or desire. The psychologist Edward Bullough (1880-1934) introduced the idea of psychical distance to explain aesthetic response, giving the illustration of someone fogbound at sea enraptured by the beauty of the swirling fog quite apart from the imminent dangers it presents. While recognizing some such phenomenon, philosophers have challenged the idea of an aesthetic attitude either as too narrow to do justice to the many interests, including moral and political ones, properly brought to art appreciation, or even as a “myth,” reducible to other factors.
Setting aside difficulties in how to characterize the psychology of aesthetic appreciation, philosophers have raised questions about the kind of qualities sought in aesthetic experience. Are there distinctive aesthetic qualities? If so, what makes them different from nonaesthetic, physical, structural, or perceptual qualities? The English philosopher Frank Sibley (1923-1996) initiated the contemporary debate and was one of the first to broaden the scope of the inquiry beyond the limited focus on qualities like beauty and the sublime. Words that identify aesthetic qualities, he suggested, include: unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless, serene, somber, dynamic, powerful, vivid, delicate, moving, trite, sentimental, tragic, and many more. Some are purely evaluative, some have a descriptive element. Such qualities “emerge” from, but are not logically determined by, nonaesthetic properties like color, configuration, or material constitution. They require “taste” for their apprehension and might be missed by nondiscerning perceivers. A revived form of eighteenth-century debates about the objectivity of beauty addresses the question whether a “realist” or “antirealist” theory of aesthetic qualities is most apt. Those defending the former often postulate specially qualified observers whose judgments are normative.
The most striking reaffirmation that there is more to aesthetics than just philosophy of art comes in the recent renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature and its offshoot “environmental aesthetics.” The dominance of philosophy of art in aesthetics (since Hegel) had distorting effects on philosophical understanding of the appreciation of nature. For one thing, art had become a paradigm for all aesthetic experience, and natural objects or landscapes were viewed as essentially like works of art. Even in the eighteenth century there is evidence of such a conception with the pleasure taken in landscaped gardens, scenic views, “prospects,” the “picturesque.” Pioneers in the new aesthetics of nature, including Ronald Hepburn and Allen Carlson, insist that appreciation of nature is sui generis. Nature, after all, does not come “framed” or designed by an artist, nor is it static. For Carlson a “true” or appropriate appreciation of the natural world, as it is in itself, does not rest on a merely intuitive response or “innocent eye” but should be informed by knowledge—drawn from geology, biology, and ecology—about the natural processes that brought about the objects perceived. What gives a mountain range its distinctive appearance? Why do landscapes look as they do? To explain our response to the appearance we must go deeper than mere appearance. The advantage of Carlson’s view is that it relates aesthetics to practical and informed decisions about environmental planning, and it connects to ethical concerns about ecological preservation. But other philosophers prefer a more subjectivist conception and dismiss as too prescriptive the idea of “appropriate” or “inappropriate” responses to nature.
Of course not all environments are “natural,” just as not all “nature” is void of human intervention. Environmental aesthetics goes beyond the aesthetics of nature by considering environments of all kinds, man-made or wilderness, urban or rural. It is hard to see how norms for aesthetic appreciation for such a variety of environments might be established, although extensions of Carlson’s “cognitive” approach have been proposed. Also, it is not clear exactly where the bounds lie between a genuinely aesthetic response to an environment and other more or less pleasurable responses, such as “feeling at home” or sensing a relaxed atmosphere.
Aesthetics has an immensely broad scope both in the objects of its inquiry—from the fine arts to a forest wilderness—and in its methods and underlying principles. A concern for beauty resides deeply in human nature, and inquiring into its sources and characteristics occupies a central place in philosophy. There is, as briefly outlined, a long and rich tradition of debate in Western intellectual history that seeks to explore and clarify the aesthetic dimension of human experience. That tradition continues strongly to this day.