July 9–27, 2018, Vancouver, Canada
Tremendous material and cultural resources have long gone into adding aesthetic value to the world. Among the first signs of the modern mind are pieces of jewelry dating back hundreds of thousands of years, and architectural remains on a grand scale pepper the globe. The fine arts grab the headlines, and more art is now made than ever before, sometimes using new technologies to yield new forms. Meanwhile, design is ubiquitous and adds value to mass manufactures, civic events are dressed in aesthetic trappings, the glories of nature are passionately preserved and lie within easy reach, and scientific models are crafted with rigorous style and economy. Ours is an era unsurpassed in the richness of its aesthetic offerings. Yet the meaning of all this aesthetic activity has eluded scholars in the humanities. In this summer seminar, philosophers and others scholars of the arts or aesthetic phenomena will spend three weeks at the University of British Columbia exploring, assessing, and building upon recent efforts in philosophy to take aesthetic value seriously.
Twelve scholars will be awarded stipends of USD 2700 to support their participation in the seminar. Stipends are funded by the American Society for Aesthetics. The UBC Department of Philosophy is providing meeting and research facilities for the duration of the seminar.
Stipends will be paid in US dollars on the first day of the seminar. Cheques will not be sent by mail. As of the summer of 2017, the Canadian dollar is trading at around USD 0.80.
While most participants will have a background in philosophical aesthetics, the seminar is designed to promote exchanges between philosophers specializing in aesthetics and specialists in other branches of value theory. Scholars of the arts and aesthetic phenomena with training in the humanities or social or natural sciences are also encouraged to apply, and to bring their disciplinary expertise to the agenda.
The seminar is organized around four approaches to answering the question why aesthetic value matters. While the first two approaches are represented in the literature in contemporary aesthetics, two borrow from (and promise to contribute to) other areas of philosophy. Readings will be finalized in consultation with seminar participants—especially non-philosophers and philosophers outside aesthetics—in the months leading up to the seminar.
1. The Power to Please Writers have long taken for granted that an item’s aesthetic value is its power to please in certain conditions—that is, its power, in those conditions, to evoke experiences that are worth having for their own sake. Beardsley’s views dominate the prehistory of the contemporary scene. Rich and humane, they speak for the best of the tradition. Jerrold Levinson’s essay, “Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem,” sketches a picture of the practical normativity that can be erected upon the foundations of aesthetic hedonism. Alexander Nehamas’s Only a Promise of Happiness (2010) is a tour de force on behalf of a Platonic version of the pleasure theory, where desire and pleasure are assigned a leading role in the human drama. Building on psychology and neuroscience, Mohan Matthen has crafted an account of the kind of pleasure that might figure in a hedonic theory of aesthetic value. The philosopher of language Andy Egan has argued that aesthetic discourse serves to self-attribute pleasure responses so as to identify shared taste and thereby establish communities of taste.
Drawing upon readings such as these, the seminar will open with three days addressed to questions like the following. What conception of pleasure is required for traditional thinking about aesthetic value? What are the prospects for aesthetic hedonism given our best knowledge of human affective responses? How far we can understand the importance of aesthetic value if it is a signaling mechanism that indexes to gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social identity? Can appeals to pleasure or finally valuable experiences ultimately bear the weight of answering the question why aesthetic value matters as it does?
2. Aesthetic and Other Values The purpose of the seminar is not to lay into aesthetic hedonism, but rather to look beyond it to alternatives, and the makings of one alternative approach are to be found in recent aesthetics. Over the past twenty years, philosophers have examined the interactions between aesthetic or artistic and moral values. Highlights include Berys Gaut’s systematic defense of the claim that moral (de)merits in an artwork are aesthetic (de)merits and Martha Nussbaum’s readings of novels in the tradition of ethical criticism. Aesthetic values also interact with practical ones in architecture, landscape architecture, and design. In Functional Beauty, Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson analyze aesthetic values that cannot be separated from practical functionality, and go on to apply their analysis to design, nature, and the fine arts. Possibly, then, aesthetic values matter in so far as they interact with other values.
One way into these debates is to spend two days with Nicolas Wolterstorff’s 2016 book, Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art. Wolterstorff concedes aesthetic hedonism and then urges that we should “expand our perspective and take note not just of aesthetic attention as a way of engaging works of the arts but also of the many other ways in which art enters into the fabric of human life.” Lamenting that philosophers have ignored “kissing, touching, and crying as ways of engaging art,” he undertakes detailed discussions of memorials, religious icons, protest art, and work songs. A question to organize the discussion is whether we should marry aesthetic hedonism with pluralism about the values of aesthetic objects or whether we do better to conceive aesthetic value broadly, as including other values.
3. Aesthetic Activity and Human Well-Being According to a line of thought that goes back to Plato and Aristotle and that now animates research programs in ethics and epistemology, what is fundamentally good is not states, such as experiences. Basic value lies in undertaking those activities that comprise human well-being, flourishing, or eudaimonia— that is, activities that realize human nature. To extend the line of though to aesthetic value, the hypothesis is that to engage with items of aesthetic value is to engage in activities that are part of human well-being.
A core reading list in perfectionism and eudaimonist virtue theory would be vast, but some of the go-to sources invite reflection on aesthetic value. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen ground human rights in basic human capacities that include aesthetic ones. Thomas Hurka’s perfectionism includes aesthetic activity among the characteristic expressions of human nature. Christine Swanton treats virtue ethics as an answer to Socrates’s question, how should I live my life? Since no halfway complete answer to Socrates’s question is narrowly moral, Swanton foregrounds artistic creativity as an element of the good life. A pair of papers by Peter Goldie argue that items of aesthetic value promote emotional sharing and emotional sharing is part of human well-being. Inspired by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s and Ernie Sosa’s accounts of normativity, the director’s own work understands aesthetic values as values that guide socially-positioned aesthetic agents to personal fulfillment.
The key questions are: Do activities in response to aesthetic value contribute to individual well-being? What are these activities, how are they related to each other, and how are they scaffolded by cultural and social structures?
4. Personally Meaningful Aesthetic Pursuits A drawback of most perfectionist and virtue theoretic thinking is that its requires substantive, independent conceptions of human well-being. In her unduly neglected book on Aesthetics and the Good Life, Marcia Eaton urged that ethics and aesthetics “really come together at the deep, meaning-of-life level,” and a fourth approach to why aesthetic value matters puts it that our aesthetic activities reflect our personal commitments—the commitments that are inextricable elements of who we are and who we aspire to be, hence that make our lives meaningful.
In its final days, the seminar will confront some recent classics—perhaps some of Harry Frankfurt’s Reasons of Love and excerpts of Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why It Matters and her 2015 book on The Variety of Values. For Wolf, meaning comes from positively engaging with items that merit positive engagement, so that neither a passive recognition of value nor a positive attitude of valuing is sufficient for meaning. Both Frankfurt and Wolf have things to say about the aesthetic domain, but resources from the sub-discipline of aesthetics include the lively and deeper-than-it-seems exchange between Levinson and Nick Riggle on aesthetic personality, as well as Riggle’s own papers on personal aesthetic style and ideals.
Guiding questions are: How should we understand what is personally meaningful in relation to what is personally fulfilling and what is good in experience? What is the role of autonomy and uniqueness in personal meaning, and how can they be squared with cultural inheritance and the normativity of aesthetic value practices?
Our Daily Routine
The seminar will meet four mornings a week, with discussion continued informally over lunch. The remaining time is reserved for participants to form discussion groups, to prepare presentations, to read, write, and incubate ideas. Some members of the UBC faculty will be willing to engage with seminar participants. The philosophy department web site is philosophy.ubc.ca and other departments in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences can be located through arts.ubc.ca.
All participants will be expected to make presentations. Non-philosophers will be asked, in the lead up to the seminar, to shape the reading list and to present work that connects theoretical discussions with lived aesthetic reality.
Perhaps you will concentrate you energy on a seminar-related research project. UBC has an excellent library, and space can be arranged for collaborations. Work in progress will be published on the seminar web site, and the director will aim to organize publishing opportunities, such as a journal special issue or symposium.
Alternatively, as the seminar is intended to help transform teaching in aesthetics, you might use it to develop materials for teaching—annotated bibliographies, syllabi, or modules to be added to the value theory sections of introductory philosophy courses, courses in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, or courses in the sciences or the fine arts disciplines. Pedagogical materials will be published initially on the seminar web site and eventually on the ASA web site.
(The seminar director is especially interested in developing materials for PHIL 100, where aesthetics is not well represented. What is needed are rich and evocative papers that are accessible to students who are curious about the fact of their aesthetic commitments.)
|Co-sponsored by the UBC Department of Philosophy and the American Society for Aesthetics|