The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics

Review by Peter Rickman in Philosophy Now:

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?

More here.

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