Preface: on the Aesthetic Project
Canvassing both aesthetic theory and practice, our volume offers fresh perspectives on canonical and emerging topics, and also brings to your attention a number of culturally sensitive topics that are customarily silenced in introductions to philosophical aesthetics. Our papers are heterogeneous in terms of length and degrees of difficulty, inviting the reader into the creative study of contemporary aesthetics, which spans a lifetime.
Engagement with aesthetics entails an inquiry into three key categories: “philosophy,” “philosopher,” and “aesthetics.”
Aesthetics is a progressive branch of philosophy. It is conceivable that, as a discipline and a way of life, aesthetics is as old as philosophy.
Looking back, Nietzsche ( 2002) makes a playful and convincing claim that, after all, any philosophy is a “memoir,” a critical recollection of an author situated in the vast world. Philosophy is an intimate project, and possibly each philosopher, then, should flesh out their own account of philosophical activity.
Philosophy is an ongoing, fascinating, and risky project.
We can follow the tradition and trace back the origins of Western philosophy to the 5th century BC, when Socrates posited life as a personal and collective problem: what kind of life is worth living? A beautiful, examined life in a thriving city! Less conventionally, this point in time can be pushed back to the ancient sophists, sceptics who explored self-consciousness while breaking free from dogmatic thinking; or even further to the ancient natural philosophers, like Democritus, making sense of our place from the vantage point of the infinitely moving cosmos.
We may also recall that philosophy can be one’s way of life, a thoughtful embodied way to engage with the everyday, whatever it brings. In this more inclusive sense, philosophy stands for any pursuit for evaluative understanding of selfhood and humanity entangled with dynamic natural and cultural phenomena.
In this sense, the Socratic aspiration to live a good, beautiful life may prove to be far-fetched, since anyone in any age may happen to feel constrained and educated by dire circumstances. For example, in Montaigne’s Essays, the author examines his elusive self in a world torn apart by grief, tyranny, endless wars and famine: in such circumstances, one has no other choice but to “live appropriately,” carefully exploring humanity in worthwhile pursuits, “our great and glorious masterpiece” (Montaigne  1991a).
An old idea: the self is humanity itself, as each person bears a mark of all humankind. We are all inevitably human! Appalling, cowardly and cruel examples of inhumanity must therefore be remembered. At the same time, the self is only a fraction of humanity, a collective project the person has no control of, except for her life’s individual pursuits. The process of self-understanding thus lies at the heart of philosophy: striving to elucidate her humanity, to fashion selfhood, each person taps into the project of humanity, realised through culture in nature, or, simply, in our shared world.
Despite the peculiar distance and tension between one’s individual humanity and the collective project, both are realised in the world now. “Where now? Who now? When now?” (Beckett  2010).
The origins of philosophical activity may be buried somewhere in a memory where wild nature is affected by my presence, eliciting a longing for questioning, a whisper. The glaring sun, and a group of white cockatoos is interacting across the branches of adjacent ghost ashes: are they interested in me? Clearly; am I included, then, along the lines of “check that out,” or maybe I am an object of worry? Do I belong here?
Philosophy, and its history as it has survived, suggests that what matters more is not at what point in time philosophy began as a cultural enterprise, but that the philosophical project continues with you and in your own way. “Each new generation, every new human being, as he becomes conscious of being inserted between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave anew the path of thought” (Arendt  1981).
“But, then, what is philosophy today—philosophical activity, I mean—if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?” (Foucault  1990).
“We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious” (Morrison 2008).
Possibly, philosophical activity finds its origin in a longing for understanding, as Plato argues, a purposeful and blind longing for meaning that can be channeled into ἔρως (eros), a loving desire directed at an object of value. Philosophical ἔρως excites, it vitalises, and thinkers around the world, across cultures and epochs, have pursued and critically evaluated many such objects. Truth and nature, pleasure and doubt, certainty and inspiration, language and laughter, cruelty, revolution and repetition, health and power, career and nudity, honesty, generosity and hospitality, supreme social skills, the arts of friendship, parenthood and sex, gods, beauty, death and a kaleidoscope of other topics is freely available for passionate inquiry!
A transition from longing to ἔρως is an aesthetic moment. Firstly, the pursuit of the objects of value is an exercise that relies on the imagination: it is a creative search, full of surprises, insofar as it is philosophical. Secondly, ἔρως becomes a full-blown aesthetic state inasmuch as one becomes aware that it is felt differently. Love feels differently, depending on its object, doesn’t it? A scholarly paper, martial arts, or growing poppies—ἔρως fuels all kinds of activities, and it is only when we try to ascertain and evaluate the meaning of such differently felt and sensed experiences that we engage in proper aesthetic practice.
Traditionally, however, the birth of aesthetics as a discipline is marked by the publication of A.G. Baumgarten’s masters thesis in 1735, where the term gets its first mention. Since the 21-year-old philosophy student adopted the ancient Greek word “aisthēsis” and invented “aesthetics,” the study has grown into an expansive academic discipline that, of course, does not cover the full terrain of the aesthetic project.
Baumgarten’s conceptual appropriation does not imply that preceding human efforts to philosophise about our world were aesthetically empty, be it earlier in the Renaissance, or much earlier in the dead cultures of ancient Greco-Romans and Persians, or the surviving ancient cultures, such as the native American, Aboriginal Australian, Roma, Hindu and Jewish, to name a few. In one way or another, philosophical narratives touch on the unavoidable aesthetic traits traversed in our volume: natural, spiritual, artistic, and the everyday phenomena that animate our sensible selves, and thereby prompt reflection and, possibly, action.
Like all branches of philosophy, aesthetics deals with the problem of the self inextricable from the world. However, historically, aesthetics is overshadowed by epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethical and political discourses, since it centers around a—marvellous—human aptitude for occupying oneself with sense perception or, in other words, sensibility.
Sensibility both stimulates and eludes the discursive nature of philosophical inquiry, predominantly relying on the use of logic and language. In philosophical aesthetics, sensibility is brought to our critical attention as an essential way to appreciate our humanity, reacting to both the outer shared and inner private worlds, criss-crossed.
While sense perception is a key element of aesthetics, without thinking through it critically, it remains only a passive receptivity. Aesthetic life requires practical interest in our world, in raw perception, sensations, feelings, emotions, and all kinds of complex affective states and sentiments, such as awe, a mixed sense of caution and esteem (e.g. listening to a slum ballad by Estee Nack and Eto) or devotion (e.g. a tragic love of humanity, epitomised by Dostoevsky’s Idiot).
Naturally, a gap between raw experience and thought cannot be bridged (see Kant  2002, A 320/B 376). Whenever I evaluate a sensation or a feeling, it becomes something else, but that is not to say that aesthetics is a futile project. On the contrary, while conventionally exploring the mind, the arts and nature, aesthetics now also draws from all forms of life, various traditions, sub- and counter-cultures and, more broadly, it evaluates sensibility in relation to one’s experiences and a style of life: one’s environments, aspirations, responsibilities, activities, and selfhood—one’s aesthetic world.
Let’s map out the general parameters of aesthetic education in the 21st century, presented in our collection of papers, by first reconsidering the basic components of philosophical inquiry mentioned above: selfhood, humanity, and the world. Philosophy is a fascinating and risky venture because the three axes fail to synchronise.
No philosophical project seems possible if the individual self has little critical understanding of humanity beyond them. Contrarily, if an individual feeds off a culture without testing its norms and values through self-reflection, her prospects of a creative philosophical life are inhibited.
One may also discover that there are many cultures, many ways to inform our lives. Moreover, the prospect of a fulfilling life is undermined when human cultures ignore the world, the fact that our cultures are embodied in the world, as a part of the cosmos.
Increasingly, modern cultures thrive at the expense of the world. The cosmos is there—it is where our world is—whether we value it or neglect it, and, like our world, it can be pictured as a consuming source of wonder, creativity, vitality, and depth, while other times as an abyss of tantalising indifference, powerful enough to consume anything that can be recollected. Hard to duel Emerson: “We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman [or a child], but swallows your ship like a grain of dust” ( 1944).
The philosophical project necessitates the acknowledgement of diversity, of various ways to realise humanity through culture in nature, of various cultures and styles of life, of limitless ways to inspire or stifle humanity. “And there never were, in the world, two opinions alike, no more than two hairs, or two grains: their most universal quality is diversity”; it’s hard not to love Montaigne ( 1991b).
In line with this rationale, our collection explores a multiplicity of topics in aesthetics, so as to estimate the contemporary aesthetic project in relation to the tradition, and geo-political and cultural circumstances in the 21st century.
The chapters are roughly divided in two groups, one addressing canonical topics, another the most recent and significant developments in aesthetics. In the first group, the authors overview and provide critical responses to the key topics in aesthetics, while the latter group diversifies our collaborative effort by considering topics that ostensibly challenge the foundations of Western aesthetics (and culture). That said, it is hard to draw a strict line between the two compartments, as all chapters adopt an active critical and often multicultural optics, a methodological phenomenon signifying one of the most dramatic cultural shifts of our age.
Taken together, both parts of the volume enrich our understanding of the role of aesthetics in fulfilling the philosophical project. What unites these diverse accounts, concerning nature, civic life, and the arts, is the conviction that aesthetics has the might to reify our shared humanity. The fact that this objective–the aesthetic project–is far from reality is a matter of waging culture wars, and co-creating peace.
The opening chapter deals with the overarching problem of aesthetics: “What is Aesthetics?” To address this difficult question, Alexander Westenberg deploys various examples taken from the arts and nature, from Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Ancient Greek and Western philosophies. What is an appropriate aesthetic response, and how to develop it? The author finds a solution by situating the aesthetic between “subjective and objective, personal and universal.”
Gravitating towards the politics of aesthetics, the second chapter aims to tackle another central question: “What is a Work of Art?” Both artists and philosophers, Richard Hudson-Miles and Andrew Broadey consider six central approaches to this question, “testing them against the irreducible complexity of contemporary artworks.” Each approach, they conclude, is “mutable and historically contingent,” which is not to say that this philosophical task is not worthy of our careful attention.
The third chapter investigates another key aporia in aesthetics, namely the question of a relation between “Artworks and Emotions.” Do artworks express the artist’s emotions? Or do artworks express emotions themselves? And how do such philosophical problems explain our responses to artworks? As Pierre Fasula observes, what the artwork expresses and what we experience are not necessarily the same.
Next, we continue our discussion of aesthetics in the realm of art by addressing the connections between “Artworks and Morality.” Can a morally repugnant piece, such as Pasolini’s Salό, still be considered a grandiose artistic accomplishment? Does the artistic value here remain unaffected by our moral concerns, or is it somehow decreased, or perhaps enhanced? A hard question to decisively respond to, but Matteo Ravasio argues convincingly that artworks can fortify our capacity for moral life.
The last two chapters of the first group of papers deal with the most prominent category in Western aesthetics: beauty. Chapter 5 fully embraces a multicultural lens in probing into the question “What Makes an Artwork Beautiful?” Developing a critical overview of canonical Western and Chinese accounts of beauty, Xiao Ouyang concludes that “whatever makes an artwork beautiful is unlikely to be something homogeneous and unitary.” Still, what is philosophically important is that beauty is “desirable,” and a philosophical category “that sheds light on a deeper understanding of humanity.”
Correspondingly, the following chapter is interested in the topic of “What makes Nature Beautiful?” Elizabeth Scarbrough discusses the two traditional Western accounts–the picturesque and the sublime–explicating our responses to natural phenomena, to then consider three contemporary perspectives, conceptual, non-conceptual and hybrid. This important chapter argues in favour of adopting “a pluralist model,” one that can equip us with skills to engage with nature depending on the circumstances in one’s life.
We move to the second part of the volume with a short and very important chapter on “The Significance of Environmental Aesthetics.” A recent phenomenon in aesthetic inquiry, environmental aesthetics covers “nature, built structures, urban environment, domestic space, various objects within, and our interactions with others.” Emphasising the pragmatic dimension, Yuriko Saito argues that this new approach not only opens up “diverse kinds of things and phenomena,” but also is conducive to cultivation of “moral virtues of respect and humility regarding others.”
The emphatic chapter on “Aesthetics and Politics” further advances our understanding of the scope and cultural significance of contemporary aesthetics. Ruth Sonderegger and Ines Kleesattel question the official origin of Western aesthetics and argue that, instead, it should be seen as the origin of “the aesthetic regime,” an affirmation of “the supremacy of the bourgeois, liberal subject and, first of all, the male subject.” The authors are thus deeply concerned with the question of “a better account of the world” and call for our attention to “relational aesthetics,” “an integrated aesthetic, epistemic and ethical account that remains earth-bound,” and is never set in stone.
The grounds for “Engaging with Indigenous Arts Aesthetically” is a central question investigated in the next chapter, authored by Elizabeth Coleman. Perhaps the most humbling piece in our collection, it draws inspiration from the recognition of Indigenous cultures’ autonomy. Traditionally deemed “primitive” and hence inferior to Western culture along with its conceptions of the arts, Aboriginal cultures veil a rich artistic world. Possibly, it is one of the tasks of those unfamiliar with them to learn from such traditions, as “a sign of respect for the culture of other people.”
The second last chapter is concerned with a problem that emerges in aesthetics, as a result of the discipline’s expansion and a corresponding sense of a significant and yet nascent cultural niche. To ascertain the limits of contemporary aesthetic education, the chapter overviews two major phenomena in contemporary aesthetics: everyday aesthetics and somaesthetics. Both pragmatic theories advance philosophies of “care” for the neglected dimensions in aesthetics, namely the ordinary and the human body, and I consider whether an inclusion of the wild nature into the discussion may facilitate a cultural change in acknowledging the power of aesthetics, as a means to radical self-understanding.
Our final chapter looks into another traditionally neglected field in aesthetics. Strangely, Western aesthetics, by and large, ignores the aesthetic considerations found in the very cradle of the Western philosophical tradition—Classical antiquity. Matthew Sharpe fills this lacuna and considers “Ancient Aesthetics” as a model to learn about the “larger sense of order and beauty,” about the figure of the philosopher “who has fully conquered their fears, prejudices and desires,” and who “could fully ‘see’ and savour the world.” In other words, antiquity can teach us about the ways to tap into an interpretative dimension that “the modern world urgently needs to rediscover as great, destabilising ecological and political crises again beckon.”
“True philosophy, loved [ἔρωτι], forces out every anxious and painful longing,” the roots of needless suffering (Epicurus, frag. 457).
Arendt, Hannah. (1977) 1981. The Life of the Mind. New York: A Harvest Book.
Beckett, Samuel. (1953) 2010. The Unnamable. London: Faber and Faber.
Emerson, Waldo Ralph. (1860) 1944. “Fate.” The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Random House.
Foucault, Michel. (1984) 1990. The History of Sexuality Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.
Kant, Immanuel. (1781) 2002. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Montaigne, Michel. (1580) 1991a. “On Experience.” The Complete Essays. London: The Penguin Press.
Montaigne, Michel. (1580) 1991b. “On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers.” The Complete Essays. London: The Penguin Press.
Morrison, Toni. 2008. What Moves at the Margin: Selected Non-Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1886) 2002. Beyond Good and Evil. Edited by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman. Translated by Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.