The Philosophy of Art

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The Philosophy of Art

This module introduces students to some central issues in the Philosophy of Art. Our focus will be on whether the value of art is a special value, autonomous from other kinds of value. Along the way we consider such questions as: Are judgements of art subjective or objective, right or wrong? What is the relation between art and the aesthetic? How does the value of art as art relate to its economic, historical, social, educational or ethical value? Can we properly evaluate a work of art without knowing anything about who made it or the society in which it was produced? The topics to be covered include: judgements of taste; the definition of art; aesthetic experience; aesthetic concepts and properties; aesthetic empiricism; forgery; intention and interpretation; the cognitive value of art; and ethical criticism.

Lectures: The lectures for this module will be held on Mondays from 2-4pm in the Spring Term. The lecturer is Dr Stacie Friend (
Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held on Mondays from 2-4pm in the Spring Term.
Readings: Every week we focus on one reading in the seminar. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood it in advance. However, the lecturer will assume that you have read it, so it is essential that you do so to follow the lecture and participate in discussion. All of the seminar readings are available electronically (most through journals that can be accessed via the library website directly or through the links on Moodle). The ‘additional readings’ listed under each week’s topic will deepen your understanding and help you to get the most out of the module, but reading them each week is optional. However, you are especially advised to cover the additional reading for those topics on which you are planning to write. Most of these readings are also available electronically. Ask the lecturer if you would like any further reading suggestions for essay topics.
Essays (BA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,000 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the BA Handbook.

Prior to this assessed essay, you may also write up to two ‘formative’ (practice) essays during the course, taken from the titles below, and receive feedback on them from your seminar leader. These can be useful practice for your eventual assessed essay. You should submit the first such essay by the Friday of reading week, and the second by the Friday after the last week of term. You are always welcome to submit an essay earlier than these dates; however, seminar leaders are not obligated to provide feedback on essays submitted late. Note that the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.

Essay (MA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,500 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.
Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You need your ITS username and password to enter. Some items may need to be accessed through the library website. For this you will need the same username and password you use for Moodle.

Pre-reading: An excellent place to start is by reading chapters on our topics in: Gaut, Berys and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 3rd edition (London: Routledge 2013). There are also articles on a number of our topics in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, both online.
More reading:

The following are good collections of papers in aesthetics and the philosophy of art:

  • Cahn, Steven and Aaron Meskin (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell 2007)

  • Lamarque, Peter and Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell 2004)

  • Matthew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell 2006) – presents two sides of many debates we discuss

The following provide useful surveys of many topics in aesthetics and the philosophy of art:

  • Gaut, Berys and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, 3rd edition (London: Routledge 2013) – earlier editions are also useful

  • Levinson, Jerrold (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003)

Week 1. Hume on the Standard of Taste

What justifies our evaluations of artworks? How can we be right or wrong in matters of taste? These are the questions that David Hume addresses in his classic paper ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. We examine Hume’s arguments and their influence in the philosophy of art.

Seminar reading:

  • David Hume, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’, in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, by David Hume, edited by Eugene F. Miller, 226-249 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1985); also available in numerous anthologies and online

Additional reading:

  • James Shelley, ‘Hume and the Nature of Taste’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 29-38

  • Stephanie Ross, ‘Humean Critics: Real or Ideal?’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 48 (2008): 20–28

  • Jerrold Levinson, ‘Hume's Standard of Taste: The Real Problem’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60 (2002): 227–238

Week 2. Kant on Judgements of Taste

What if anything distinguishes aesthetic judgements, or ‘judgements of taste’, from other kinds of judgements? Are these judgements subjective or objective? Kant’s analysis of the special features of aesthetic judgements, and in particular his argument that such judgements rest on a particular form of ‘disinterested pleasure’, has had a significant influence on subsequent accounts of the value of art. We consider Kant’s analysis and the way it was interpreted (and misinterpreted) by later philosophers.

Seminar reading:

  • Immanuel Kant, the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ in The Critique of the Power of Judgement, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001); we will focus on §§1-9

Additional reading:

  • Marcia Eaton, ‘Kantian and Contextual Beauty’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57 (1999): 11-15

  • Chris Janaway, ‘Kant's Aesthetics and the “Empty Cognitive Stock”’, The Philosophical Quarterly 47 (1997): 459–476

  • Paul Guyer, ‘Disinterestedness and Desire in Kant’s Aesthetics’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1978): 449-460

Week 3. Traditional Aesthetic Empiricism

Inspired by Hume and Kant, many philosophers have argued that the aesthetic value of an artwork turns on our experience of it – either because the experience itself is valuable, or because we become acquainted with the relevant features of the work only in experience. This idea is known as aesthetic empiricism. We consider classic versions of empiricism.

Seminar reading:

  • Frank Sibley, ‘Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic’, Philosophical Review 74 (1965): 135-59

Additional reading:

  • Frank Sibley, ‘Aesthetic Concepts’, Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 421-450 (especially Part I)

  • R. A. Sharpe, ‘The Empiricist Theory of Artistic Value’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58 (2000): 321-332

  • George Dickie, ‘The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude’, American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964): 56-65

  • James Shelley, ‘Against Value Empiricism in Aesthetics’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88 (2010): 707-720

  • Anna Christina Ribeiro, ‘Aesthetic Attributions: The Case of Poetry’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 293-302

Week 4. Enlightened Empiricism

Do we need to know anything about the history of an artwork to evaluate it? Do facts about the context of a work influence our perception of its aesthetic properties? According to traditional empiricists, facts external to a work cannot influence its value, because they are not perceived or experienced. This week we look at reasons to think that knowledge of the historical context of an artwork is necessary for properly perceiving and experiencing artworks.

Seminar reading:

  • Kendall Walton, ‘Categories of Art’, Philosophical Review 79 (1970): 334-67 (for §III, you may read only sub-sections (b) and (f))

Additional reading:

  • Alan Goldman, ‘The Experiential Theory of Aesthetic Value’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64 (2006): 333-342

  • David Davies, ‘Against Enlightened Empiricism’, in Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 22-34

  • Peter Lamarque, ‘Aesthetic Empiricism’, in Work and Object (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) – eBook

  • Brian Laetz, ‘Kendall Walton’s “Categories of Art”: A Critical Commentary’, British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (2010): 287-306

Week 5. Intention and Interpretation

To what extent does the artist’s intention matter in interpreting an artwork? If the intention is not manifest in the work itself, how can it be relevant? A work’s context includes the actions and intentions of the artist in producing the work. The relevance of this aspect of context to understanding and evaluating art has been subject to heated dispute, particularly in discussions of literature. We consider various arguments for and against taking into account the artist’s intentions.

Seminar reading:

  • Nan Stalnaker, ‘Intention and Interpretation: Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54 (1996): 121-34

Additional reading:

  • W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, Monroe C., ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press 1954), 3-18; reprinted in numerous collections and online

  • Stephen Davies, ‘Author’s Intentions, Literary Interpretation, and Literary Value’, British Journal of Aesthetics 46 (2006): 223-247

  • Jerrold Levinson, ‘Intention and Interpretation in Literature,’ in The Pleasures of Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1996), 175-213; reprinted in several collections


Week 6. Forgery

If a forgery of a painting is indiscernible from the original, can they differ in aesthetic value? Why does an ordinary object (a urinal, a spade) lack artistic or aesthetic value, but the same object exhibited by an artist have such value? Forgeries pose a further challenge to aesthetic empiricism, because their value seems to rest on facts about the work that cannot be perceived. We explore this challenge and its potential for expanding the notion of the ‘aesthetic’.

Seminar reading:

  • Denis Dutton, ‘Artistic Crimes’, British Journal of Aesthetics 19 (1979): 302-13

Additional reading:

  • Nan Stalnaker, ‘Fakes and Forgeries’, in Gaut and Lopes, Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (citation above)

  • Alfred Lessing, ‘What is Wrong with a Forgery?’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23 (1965): 461-471

  • Nelson Goodman, Chapter 3 of Languages of Art 2d edition (Indianapolis: Hackett 1976)

Week 7. Definitions of Art

Does a work have to have aesthetic properties or generate aesthetic experience to count as art? To what extent does the context of a work determine whether or not it is art? We look at a range of definitions and theories of art designed to accommodate avant-garde works that appear non-aesthetic, including conceptual art.

Seminar reading:

  • Catharine Abell, ‘Art: What it Is and Why it Matters’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85 (2012): 671-691

Additional reading:

  • Arthur Danto, ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571-584

  • George Dickie, ‘What is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1947), 19-52; reprinted in many collections

  • Noël Carroll (ed.), Theories of Art Today (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2000) – papers on various approaches to defining art; see esp. James Anderson on aesthetic definitions

Week 8. Conceptual Art

If the value of conceptual art—such as Duchamp’s Fountain, little more than a urinal—resides in the ideas behind the work, rather than what we can perceive in it, does this mean conceptual art is non-aesthetic? Or is there a notion of the aesthetic that accounts for it? Conceptual art is usually thought to pose yet another challenge to aesthetic empiricism. We consider how the notion of ‘experience’ or ‘perception’ might be broadened to accommodate the aesthetic value of conceptual art.

Seminar reading:

  • James Shelley, ‘The Problem of Non-Perceptual Art’, British Journal of Aesthetics 43 (2003): 363-78

Additional reading:

  • Elisabeth Schellekens, ‘“Seeing is Believing” and “Believing is Seeing”’, Acta Analytica 20 (2005): 10-23

  • Timothy Binkley, ‘Piece: Contra Aesthetics’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35 (1977): 265-277

Week 9. Cognitive Value

Do we learn from artworks? Does this matter to their aesthetic value? Traditionally aesthetic value has been distinguished sharply from a work’s cognitive value, where the cognitive value represents the various ways we might increase our knowledge or understanding from engaging with art. This week we look at arguments for and against the relevance of cognitive value to aesthetic value.

Seminar reading:

  • Jenefer Robinson, ‘L’Éducation Sentimentale’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73 (1995): 212-226

Additional reading:

  • Jerome Stolnitz, ‘On the Cognitive Triviality of Art’, British Journal of Aesthetics 32 (1992): 191-200

  • Eileen John, ‘Reading Fiction and Conceptual Knowledge: Philosophical Thought in Literary Context’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 221-348

  • Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar, ‘Literature, Knowledge, and Value’, Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 111-124

Week 10. Ethical Criticism

Does the ethical perspective of an artwork matter to its aesthetic value? Is an immoral artwork necessarily worse as art? As with cognitive value, moral value has traditionally been distinguished sharply from aesthetic value. More recently, philosophers have argued that a work’s ethical character may influence its aesthetic value in a variety of ways. We consider several different approaches to the issue.

Seminar reading:

  • Anne W. Eaton, ‘Robust Immoralism’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 281-92

Additional reading:

  • Noël Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996): 223-238

  • Berys Gaut, ‘The Ethical Criticism of Art’, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press 1998), 182-203

  • James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics 38 (1998): 150-166

  • Mary Devereaux, ‘Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will’, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press 1998), 227-256

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