1 What is Aesthetics?

Alexander Westenberg

It is a notorious characteristic of philosophy that any attempt to define it raises more questions than it answers: if this is true of philosophy more broadly, it is perhaps even more true of that branch known as aesthetics. Though in some respects the modern discipline as we know it today is traceable to eighteenth century European philosophy, the important work done in that century was not isolated from many centuries of work prior. In addition, this is to say nothing of the long tradition of aesthetical work in China and Japan, for example, which can trace its origins at least as far back as the European tradition (and, as we shall see, there are certain similarities of origin). Finally, though aesthetics is often taken today to be concerned with works of art, this is both an overstatement today and at odds with much of historical aesthetics.

The question, then, is not an easy one. In the face of such a dilemma, it is perhaps best to start etymologically: what does the word “aesthetic” mean on its own, and where does it come from? Though it was first brought into common use with the work of the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten ([1735] 1954), the word is Greek in origin, from the word αἰσθητικός (aisthetikos: Liddell & Short 1940), which refers to the perception and experience of the senses. On this understanding, then, the study of aesthetics is the study of something sensed, in a broad understanding of that word, rather than something imagined or reasoned. That is, the object of study in aesthetics must be, at least in part, sensorial. Of course, one might think that this is true of science, but the difference is crucial: science is the study of the material world in itself, whereas aesthetics—in its most fundamental sense—is about the experience of things in that world. In particular, aesthetics is about their level of pleasantness, as in asking whether a particular experience is pleasant or not.

At this point we begin to arrive not only at a working definition of aesthetics, but also a statement of its most important questions. Perhaps most importantly, we can arrive at an explanation of why its questions are worth asking and why it is a useful discipline to undertake. Our definition, then, might be this: aesthetics is a sub-branch of philosophy that examines questions of the pleasantness  of our experiences concerning things in the world (where pleasantness is taken in a broad sense to include, for example, the intellectual pleasure of being challenged or confronted). This is still quite general, but it gives us a framework from which to build a deeper understanding; though, as suggested at the beginning, any hopes of narrowing it down further may be futile. Certainly, the immediate benefit of this definition is that it highlights quite nicely a tension that resides at the heart of all aesthetic work: the tension between personal, subjective experiences and more universal, objective experiences. If we place all experiences on a spectrum, those at the subjective extreme, such as a personal enjoyment of swimming or celery are clearly experiences unique to a particular individual: though of course many people like swimming (and, apparently, celery), we do not expect anyone else to share in this enjoyment. At the other end of the spectrum we find objective experiences, which are so universal as to be applicable to humanity in general—experiences such as hunger, thirst, laughter, physical attraction, tiredness, physical pain, the experience of colour, the experience of feeling the water on one’s skin while swimming, and so on. Objective experiences are not concerned with pleasantness; although we might find the experience of swimming (for example) to be either pleasant or not, nevertheless the experiences that make up the overall concept of swimming, such as the experience of feeling the water on one’s skin, are not in themselves experiences of pleasantness, and so lie outside the discipline of aesthetics. But so, too, do subjective experiences; although a personal like or dislike of eating celery, for example, certainly has to do with pleasantness, it has to do with pleasantness for you, and nobody else. Certainly, one could ask if there is anything that ties together all people who like to enjoy celery, but if the answer is physical, then it’s a question for physics, and if mental, psychology.

If we eliminate the experiences at either extreme, we find in between certain experiences that hold tension between being subjective and objective, personal and universal: experiences like listening to a song, a symphony, or the sound of the waves; looking at a beautiful sunset, a painting by Turner or Tensho Shubun, a sculpture, a piece of graffiti or a dance; or reading a novel or a poem. What’s interesting about these experiences is that they are undoubtedly personal, and yet, unlike the case of liking celery, we expect these experiences to be universal, shared by others. Unlike eating celery, which is either pleasant or not, these other experiences involve a kind of judgment, like “this is beautiful,” making it much closer to an objective experience like “this is yellow.” And, just as we would expect others to agree that a yellow object really is yellow, and think their perceptions wrong or faulty if they disagreed, so too with experiences such as looking at a beautiful sculpture such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, we expect others to agree that it is beautiful—in fact, at times we expect them to agree even if they don’t like it, allowing a tension between saying “this is a good book, but I don’t personally like it.” And yet, at the same time, these experiences remain deeply personal, subjective. And so we hear and use phrases like “this piece speaks to me about. . . .” It is these kinds of experiences which are the central focus of aesthetics, and so we call these experiences “aesthetic experiences.” This tension between the personal and the universal, then, is the driving principle of the study of aesthetics.

If aesthetics is concerned with experiences such as these, then it becomes clear that to restrict it to any one type of experience or to one tradition is unjustifiable, even ridiculous. And so, though much of the work done by contemporary aestheticians has its roots in only the last few centuries, the ancient world was no stranger to aesthetics. Plato (428/427–348/347 BCE)  famously thought the impact that the experience of art could have on people was so powerful as to be dangerous, and that art did not have anything to offer philosophy since it merely imitates reality, whereas philosophy seeks true reality ([380 BCE] 1974, bk. X, 595a–605c). Thus, art is a form of deception, so to speak.[1] In contrast to this, the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (c. 110-30 BCE) wrote a work dedicated to examining the philosophical import of the Homeric corpus (see Asmis 1991),[2] and Augustine (354–430 CE) ([386–87] 2007) claimed that the study of poetry was an important introductory step into philosophy (2007). In China, Confucius (551–479 BCE) shared Plato’s suspicion of art, yet he valued appreciation of beauty for the sensibilities of the self and for its moral qualities also (1938), while his contemporary in India, Bharata,[3] taught a theory of rasa as the end of the arts, a concept not too dissimilar from the Aristotelian notion of catharsis[4] (1950-1961; see Gerow 2002).

This brief overview of the kinds of experiences we call aesthetic, however, raises another issue that is often overlooked. Put simply, it suggests that the usual restriction of aesthetics to artworks and to natural phenomena is incomplete. After all, it is not uncommon for a mathematical equation to be termed “beautiful,” or for aesthetic concepts and terms to be used in contexts such as social interactions, military maneuvers, and even politics.

Aesthetics as an 18th century discipline

Nevertheless, it is a fact that, as I have said above, the discipline as we know it today has its origins largely in eighteenth century Europe, and so a brief overview of this lineage is not out of place. This section, therefore, provides an historical overview of the origins of aesthetics as a modern philosophical subject in the 18th century, and notes its journey through engagement with fine arts to modern interest in pop culture. The discussion here is not meant to be an exhaustive historical outline, but a demonstration of the central questions of aesthetics through the last three hundred years. This will provide the impetus for a discussion of aesthetics as the study of beauty.

In Paul Guyer’s (2005, 25) turn of phrase, aesthetics

was not baptized until 1735, when the twenty-one-year-old Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, in his dissertation “Philosophical Meditations on some matters pertaining to Poetry,” introduced the term to designate “the science for directing the inferior faculty of cognition or the science of how something is to be sensitively cognized.”

Baumgarten, however, was himself working in a field begun some twenty years earlier, with the work of the Earl of Shaftesbury (Characteristiks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1711), and his two followers Joseph Addison (“The Pleasures of the Imagination” in The Spectator, 1712) and Frances Hutcheson (An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1725) in Britain, and the work of Jean-Baptiste Du Bos (Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music, 1719) in France. Shaftesbury (1671–1713) made the important distinction, still upheld today, between enjoying something for the benefit it brings one—whether that be physical, mental, emotional, or any other kind of benefit—and enjoying something for its own sake, simply because it is worthy of being enjoyed ([1711] 1999, 318–319).

Shaftesbury’s answer to the fundamental question of aesthetics—how is it that our experience is both subjective and yet in some sense objective and universal—claimed, in a rather Platonic fashion, that the beauty of the natural world and the created works of humanity lead one’s mind “higher,” to an appreciation of the beauty of the entirety of creation, and ultimately to its creator, the source of all beauty (Shaftesbury [1711] 1999, 322ff). This explains how it is we make aesthetic judgments, since we have an objective standard of beauty to which we can refer, though we can only come to know this standard through our experience of its instantiations, thus leading the way to a need for refinement. David Hume, though he discarded the notion of a creator of beauty and instead argued that we move with the imagination to a recognition of some form of utility—whether real or not ([1739–40] 2009, 463–470)—understood the need for some kind of standard to explain our use of aesthetic judgments, and so introduced the idea of an ideal critic whose senses were perfectly refined to the reception of aesthetic experiences (Hume [1757] 2000).[5]

Another important influential distinction of the eighteenth century was made by the British philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke (1729–1797), who distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. For Burke ([1757] 2005), beauty is a social quality, “where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them (and there are many that do so), they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons” (part 1, sec. 10). The sublime, on the other hand, is the deeper experience, the more profound, “the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling” (part 1, sec. 7). The sublime is oriented towards what is beyond our comprehension, whereas the beautiful, for Burke, has no apparent end. So, for example, if, in listening to “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” by Henry Purcell, one is moved to a surge of emotion, even to tears, Burke would consider this a sublime experience, because of its power to call up strong and passionate emotions. What is notable about this distinction is that Burke’s concept of the sublime allows for “negative” aesthetic experiences, such as the experience of Jordan Wolfson’s virtual-reality artwork “Real Violence,” to be considered sublime, and therefore positively appraised. Such an artwork is capable of inducing “the strongest emotions” which, for Burke, can ultimately lead us beyond the artwork to something greater, and thus the experience of it is sublime.

Probably the most important philosophical work on aesthetics in the eighteenth century, however, was written by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), namely the Critique of Judgement (1790). As is evident from the title of his work, Kant took the question of aesthetic judgment as paramount, making it the focus of the first half of his book. A complete discussion of Kant’s work is outside the scope of this chapter, but a few points are worthy of mention here.

First, Kant’s formulation of the faculty of judgment is influenced by Shaftesbury’s and Hume’s, with its most well-known characteristic being a disinterestedness in the object of judgment. What this means is that the observer, the person having the aesthetic experience, has no vested interests in the thing experienced, and so the judgment is outside of any benefit to them (Kant [1790] 2015, sec. 2).

Kant kept Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, but modified it in a way that draws together threads from Shaftesbury as well. For Kant, beauty is present when we discern the intelligibility of what we experience without any apparent ultimate purpose. Thus beauty is present, for Kant, at a paradox of being purposive—that is, appearing to have been in some way designed—and being without an actual apparent purpose. As an example, when looking at a flower that we call beautiful, its beauty seems to be designed, to have a purpose. And yet no particular purpose is apparent, no clear concept of “what this beauty is for.” Similarly with a sunset, we may wonder at its beauty, and feel it to be purposive, but there is no clear, definite purpose—after all, what purpose could the beauty of a sunset have? The sublime, on the other hand, comes into play when we stand in the face of something so truly awe-inspiring that it rejects all attempts to understand, and we simply stand in its presence, as it were (Kant [1790] 2015, sec. 23–29). The American Jewish poet and singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, expressed this quite nicely when explaining the sentiment of his most famous song, Hallelujah:

This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the [binaries] … and reconcile. … Regardless of how impossible the situation [seems], there is a moment when you open your mouth, throw open your arms and embrace the whole mess … and you just say “Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.” (Cohen 1988)

For Cohen, the song was about acknowledging that there are some things in our world that are so big they are beyond us, and when we glimpse that bigger picture, even a little, our response is to cry out, in Cohen’s words, “Hallelujah!” Cohen’s formulation is particularly fitting because, for Kant (as for Shaftesbury), it is through aesthetic experiences such as these that we come to know the ultimate source of beauty or sublimity.

Kant answers the tension between the personal and universal in aesthetic experiences by linking the experience of the aesthetic with the fundamental nature of rational beings (Kant [1790] 2015, sec. 5). For Kant, it is intrinsic and unique to rationality to be able to see things as valuable in themselves—it is, indeed, the basis of his theory of morality in the Critique of Practical Reason. This ability, however, can be used in two ways: pragmatically or what I shall call “aesthetically.” In the former, we only use this ability with regards to purely practical (especially moral) reasoning, and thus the ability to see something as intrinsically valuable is itself a purely pragmatic ability. As an example, imagine someone comes to you wanting funding for a music preschool. You could reason to yourself that music is intrinsically valuable, and so worth the financial burden of funding the school, and this would be a fair thought process. But notice in this example that the ability to see something as intrinsically valuable is subject to the larger, practical question of “should I fund this music preschool?” This use of intrinsic value as a tool for reasoning is even more common in moral reasoning, where one might reason that it is wrong to hurt an animal because life itself is intrinsically valuable and therefore is worth protecting. Notice again that there is a “and therefore x action should be done.” Clearly, the ability to see something as valuable in itself can become a purely pragmatic ability, that is, a useful skill, but not itself intrinsically valuable. This is because if we only use our ability to see things as valuable in themselves to help us with making decisions, then essentially we are only treating this skill as a tool to be used to improve our decision making about what to do or not to do. Just as our ability to see space (i.e., our ability for depth perception) is a tool which helps us move about the physical world, so, too our ability to see things as valuable in themselves is, if used exclusively for practical and moral reasoning, simply a tool to help us move about the moral world.

In these examples of “pragmatic intrinsic valuing,” though the approach may be uniquely rational, it is still practical; but if we put all practical thoughts to the side, and stand observing something in its intrinsic worth—nature as a whole is the most perfect object of this for Kant (see Kant [1790] 2015, sec. 6)—then we engage in the most uniquely rational activity of all (sec. 49). And, if this is the case, then it follows from the fact that it is uniquely rational that it is also, for Kant, a form of freedom for the rational being, in which rationality is not bound by the necessity to choose or deliberate, but can purely experience the value of something simply because it is valuable. Thus, for Kant, aesthetics becomes the most uniquely personal—even the most uniquely human—activity, since it is the function and expression of rationality to experience aesthetically.

These themes of 18th century aesthetics draw out that tension at the heart of aesthetics, the tension between the personal and the universal. In particular, Kant’s notion of the aesthetic experience as uniquely, even supremely, rational draws out this same tension. It does this by highlighting the uniquely rational element—which is, of course, universally human—and the uniquely personal element of standing in the presence of the source of that experience, coupled with its role (for Kant) as instigator of a personal journey from the beautiful or sublime thing to beauty and sublimity as such. Though, for Kant, such experiences were largely (though not exclusively) found in the natural world, the cause—i.e., whether the object of aesthetic experience is natural or created by humanity—is not important for our discussion. What is important is the connection between the 18th century discipline and that fundamental tension which I have noted earlier. Thus it can truly be said that aesthetics is an 18th century discipline, for it is here that we find the most influential approach to that tension which is at its heart.

Aesthetics as the study of beauty

As the foregoing discussion has highlighted, the origins of modern philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century has tended to focus on the question of beauty (and its correlatives, such as sublimity, ugliness, and so on). This immediately raises the question, of course, of what is meant by beauty, for this is not a simple property like redness or squareness. Rather, beauty is a quality, intangibly constituted by different features in different edges, and what is beautiful in one thing might not be in another—for example, hard edges may look attractive on a building, but not on a cat.

So the first question is, what makes something beautiful? While this topic is discussed in great detail in due course, it may be pointed out here that if it is true that aesthetic experiences are those that hold tension between the personal and the universal, as I have argued in this chapter, then it stands to reason that some aspect of what it is that makes something beautiful, which we might call “objectively pleasant,”[6] must speak to this very tension. Of course, as we have seen, this is the fundamental question of aesthetics, so this is perhaps unsurprising. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a moment to explore the relationship between beauty and the tension between the personal and the universal. Raising this question does lead us, however, to expand the concept of beauty and deformity (as Hume would call it) or ugliness (as we might say today), to be something of a placeholder for any and all experiences which we might tend to insist upon universalising. This is because it is clear that if aesthetics is the study of beauty–as it is so often said to be–it can only be so if beauty is taken to encompass far more than simply what is agreeable.

A woman fixing her hair, her robe partly open and one breast exposed, with a packet of tissue paper between her teeth.
Fig. 1: Utagawa Toyokuni, Courtesan in Her Boudoir. Accessed from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and used under fair dealing (Canada).

If we return to the working definition of aesthetics presented at the beginning of this chapter, we understand that pleasantness can not be synonymous with pleasure as opposed to pain, for this would fail to take into account the “pleasantness” of looking at Utagawa Toyokuni’s (1769–1825) hanging scroll,  “Courtesan in Her Boudoir,” which portrays a courtesan putting herself together after having sex, seen fixing her hair with her clothes still partially open. The picture is not a happy one, and to derive enjoyment of it in a way that ignores the quiet sadness of the picture seems perverse, certainly out of place. Instead, we enjoy this picture precisely because of its portrayal of a situation tinged with sadness. Or again, the experience of a mathematical equation one has struggled for hours to achieve may have a certain intellectual pleasure at having overcome the difficulties presented by the equation, but has nothing to do with the pleasantness of the equation as such. Instead the pleasantness is to be found in the elegance and simplicity of the equation, the originality of thought, and so on, in spite of the pain, struggle, frustration, and tiredness experienced in grappling with it. The experience of reading Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Walk,” written after his wife’s death, is another example of this distinction:

The Walk

You did not walk with me

Of late to the hill-top tree

By the gated ways,

As in earlier days;

You were weak and lame,

So you never came,

And I went alone, and I did not mind,

Not thinking of you as left behind.


I walked up there to-day

Just in the former way;

Surveyed around

The familiar ground

By myself again:

What difference, then?

Only that underlying sense

Of the look of a room on returning thence.

This poem is saturated with sorrow, and when we read it we feel that same sorrow, and it would be wrong to describe ourselves as finding pleasure in Hardy’s sorrow. And yet the poem has pleasantness—that is, beauty—in its ability to capture, contain, and convey that emotion.

This “objective pleasantness” that we find in these aesthetic experiences, then, is a pleasantness that seems to be divorced from the question of our enjoyment and appraisal of the cause of that experience. This explains how it is that we can be expected to appreciate a book, painting, sculpture, piece of music, and so on even if we are not expected to like it, because the pleasantness of the aesthetic experience—which we might call our appreciation of it—seems to be assumed to be separate from the enjoyment and approval of the cause of that experience. If it is possible to appreciate an experience—that is, to have the appropriate response to it—and yet still not like it, then there seems to be two elements to an individual’s experience: one purely personal, and thus not aesthetic as such, and the other personal-yet-universal. It is this latter element that constitutes the individual’s aesthetic experience proper. This might then explain why, despite its significance in the eighteenth century, Burke and Kant’s distinction between beauty and the sublime is not much used today, beauty instead becoming the overriding concept for all experiences that are universal yet personal, and which we believe have “pleasantness.” Thus we find our answer to the question “what is beauty?” in this unique kind of pleasantness found in aesthetic experiences, devoid of their “goodness” or personal pleasantness.

As these examples show, beauty is not a “one-size-fits-all” concept—or if it is, it looks so radically different in different sizes that it is only in these different forms that we can talk about it in any detail. And yet, expanding the notion of beauty in this way does not thereby render it useless. Though it seems to cover a wide range of experiences, and apply to a diverse—and at times contradictory—range of qualities, beauty has a role as the determining factor in aesthetic judgments. When we have an aesthetic experience, we feel words like “beautiful” are uniquely appropriate: we describe as beautiful not only the awesome, the inspiring, and the joy-filled, but also those experiences saturated with sorrow and desperation. Even when the experience seems too bleak, or what is portrayed in an artwork is too confronting or disturbing for us to be comfortable with calling it “beautiful” directly, it is still not uncommon to hear of such a work of art as being “beautifully put together.” Beauty, then, still remains a powerful and useful concept in the study of aesthetics.

Why Aesthetics?

Drawing the different threads together, we are now in a position to reconsider and provide a more complete answer for the question of why aesthetics is worth pursuing. So far we have spoken of the experience of a tension between the personal and the universal as the main focus of aesthetics, but, of course, the experience cannot be had without someone to experience it. And so the individual is a crucial element in the equation of an aesthetic experience. The example above of Toyokumi’s hanging scroll suggests two important aspects of this individual element.

The first aspect is to do with “proper response,” or “correct pleasantness,” as one might say. In looking at Toyokumi’s “Courtesan in Her Boudoir” it would seem out of place to enjoy the painting because it includes a naked breast, for example: to look on the image in this way fails to do justice to the image as a work of art, certainly, but more than that it denigrates it as the object of an aesthetic experience. Likewise, to enjoy it because one enjoys the idea of a woman sold into the life of a courtesan, usually suffering not only venereal diseases but also lead poisoning from the make-up she wore, then this too would be a grossly inappropriate response, missing the point of the artwork and missing out on the aesthetic experience altogether. A similar point may be made about John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, in which George must kill his best friend Lenny; we rightly feel for George, and find the book pleasant in its tragedy and its highlighting of a number of injustices, such as the injustice of a society that fails to care for its most vulnerable, the injustice of Lenny not being cared for by anyone except George, the injustice of George being put in a situation in which he thinks he has no option but to kill his best friend, and so on. We call the book beautiful, eye-opening, and we recommend it to others. Yet if we were to enjoy the book because we like the idea of shooting our friend or of killing someone with a disability, then again we have failed to have the correct aesthetic response. So the first aspect of the individual element in an aesthetic experience is the question of an appropriate response.

This is inextricably entwined with the second aspect, which is the question of the development and cultivation of appreciation and appropriate response. If the appropriate response can be expected (irrespective of enjoyment), then one naturally turns to the question of aesthetic education, or how this appropriate response comes about, and how one develops the disposition from which such an appropriate response arises. It stands to reason that if judgments about aesthetic experiences are to be universal—that is, if we expect, as indeed we do, someone else to agree with our judgment—then we can only do this because we believe they are capable of making the same appropriate response (since, obviously, we assume our own judgment to be appropriate). This is because we cannot expect them to have a response that agrees with our own if that response is random, or purely based on personality—recalling our discussion at the beginning of the chapter, the experience must be “objectively personal,” that is, personal yet universal. This leaves only two options: 1) everybody is born with the exact same disposition towards having an appropriate response that does not change as they grow; or 2) everybody’s disposition towards having an appropriate response changes and is affected by the circumstances of each person’s life and experience. The problem with the first option is trying to accommodate those who do not have an appropriate response: the only way to accommodate them is to say they have an innate abnormality. But in this case we would be unable to judge them for it. After all, we don’t judge someone born blind for not agreeing with us that the object in front of us is yellow: it is simply not possible for them to agree or disagree, since they are physically incapable of experiencing the colour yellow. Likewise, if we say that all humanity is innately disposed to appropriate responses towards aesthetic experiences, then those who do not have the appropriate response are “let off the hook,” as it were.

It seems, then, that the only option is to acknowledge that our disposition towards an appropriate response changes and develops over time, and thus acknowledge the possibility of aesthetic education, that is, education in developing appropriate responses. And, though the main focus of this chapter is the individual aesthetic experience, it’s worth noting here that this shift in disposition towards an appropriate response that happens over time is true both at the individual and also at the cultural/societal level.[7] So, for example, for an Ancient Greek, revulsion at disproportionality was deemed an appropriate response, whereas in contemporary Western society, notwithstanding that this may well be the response of some people, disproportionality is culturally acceptable, and at times even the most praiseworthy feature of a work of art (one immediately thinks of Picasso, for example). To return to the subject of changing disposition towards appropriate responses, in taking up this option in conjunction with the assertion that a response to an aesthetic experience can be either appropriate or inappropriate (though there may be more than one appropriate or inappropriate response), then we immediately acknowledge the role of the individual’s own disposition as a factor in aesthetic experiences, and thus in the study of aesthetics. Aesthetic experiences are, after all, the source of the personal in the tension between the personal and universal that drives aesthetics as a discipline.

This then suggests an amended answer to the question of why one ought to study aesthetics, if we take aesthetics to be the study of aesthetic experiences (as we have defined them here) involving both the object and subject of that experience. Under this definition, aesthetics is a discipline worthy of study because it examines and seeks to explain the myriad of experiences that make up a large part of the human experience, in which we respond to something on a personal, subjective level, and yet seek to universalise it on an objective level. Its subject matter lies on the threshold between the uniqueness of the individual and the shared experience of humanity, and looks to settle disputes about whether and why we can expect others to share a particular experience. Thus aesthetics can be taken to be a philosophical study of beauty (or lack thereof) and our reaction to it—in a word, taste.


Aristotle. (335 BCE) 1996. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London and New York: Penguin.

Asmis, Elizabeth. 1991. “Philodemus’s Poetic Theory and On the Good King According to Homer’.” Classical Antiquity 10, no. 1: 1–45. https://doi.org/10.2307/25010939.

Augustine of Hippo. (386–87) 2007. On Order [De Ordine]. Translated by Silvano Borruso. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb. (19735) 1954. Reflections on Poetry. Translated by Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holther. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bharata. 1950–1961. The Nāṭyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni. 2 vols. Bibliotheca Indica 272–272A. Translated by Manomohan Ghosh. Calcutta: Asiatic Society.

Burke, Edmund. (1757) 2005. Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm#A_PHILOSOPHICAL_INQUIRY

Cohen, Leonard. 1988. “How the heart approaches what it yearns: Interview with Leonard Cohen presented by John McKenna”, Part 1. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. https://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/rte.html

Confucius. 1938. The Analects of Confucius. Translated by A. Waley. New York: Random House.

Gerow, Edwin. 2002. “Rasa and Katharsis: A Comparative Study, Aided by Several Films.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 122, no. 2, Indic and Iranian Studies in Honor of Stanley Insler on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (April/June): 264–277.

Guyer, Paul. 2005. “History of Modern Aesthetics.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson, 25–60. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. (1739–40) 2009. A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. Auckland: The Floating Press.

Hume, David. (1757) 2000. “Of The Standard Of Taste.” Infomotions, Inc. http://infomotions.com/etexts/philosophy/1700-1799/hume-of-740.htm.

Kant, Immanuel. (1790) 2015. Critique of Judgement. Translated by J.H. Bernard. Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/48433.

Levin, Susan. 2001. Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Short. 1940. “αἰσθητικός.” A Greek-English Lexicon. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Dai)sqhtiko%2Fs.

Pappas, Nickolas. 2012. “Plato on Poetry: Imitation or Inspiration?” Philosophy Compass (October): 669–678.

Planinc, Zdravko. 2003. Plato Through Homer: Poetry and Philosophy in the Cosmological Dialogues. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Plato. 1963. The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters. Translated and edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Shaftesbury, Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper). (1711) 1999. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Edited by L. E. Klein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sushytska, Julia. 2012. “On the Non-Rivalry Between Poetry and Philosophy: Plato’s Republic, Reconsidered.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 45, no. 1 (March): 54–70.

Westenberg, Thomas. 2015. “Epicurean Arts: The Aesthetic Theory of Philodemus of Gadara.” Masters Thesis, Macquarie University.


  1. There have been a number of recent arguments, however, that Plato has been strongly misinterpreted on this point (Levin 2001; Planinc 2003; Pappas 2012; Sushytska 2012).
  2. For further discussion of the Epicurean view that the arts could be philosophical, see Westenberg (2015).
  3. Estimates of Bharata’s life range from 500 BCE to 500 CE, but most put him between 500 and 200 BCE.
  4. Catharsis is a notion famously introduced in Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy. Simply put, it is the purgation or purification of one’s emotions, achieved through a quasi-experience of those emotions during the performance of the tragedy. See Aristotle’s Poetics  ([335 BCE] 1996, 1449b21–29).
  5. Hume here takes aesthetic experiences to be experiences of works of art.
  6. Meaning we expect a certain level of universal appreciation for the object of our experience. People often use this concept naturally when they say, for example, “I don’t like it, but I can appreciate it.”
  7. One may wonder, if a society’s position on aesthetics can change, how it can be considered universal. The answer lies in the fact that the society as a whole changes because someone (or a group of someones) challenges and “educates” (for lack of a better word) the society in a new way of thinking. We might think of the Impressionist movement, which challenged the prevailing realism in painting, was initially rejected, and later became widely recognised. In essence, there is no distinction here between the individual whose disposition changes, yet maintains a conviction that aesthetic experiences are universal, and the society or culture which does the same.


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What is Aesthetics? Copyright © 2021 by Alexander Westenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.