Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction

By Noël Carroll | Go to book overview
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Art and aesthetic experience

Part I

Aesthetic theories of art

Art and aesthetics

The term “aesthetics” has a variety of meanings. In ordinary language, people often refer to so-and-so’s aesthetics—for example, Yeats’ aesthetics. What this generally means is something like Yeats’ artistic principles, preferences, and/or his agenda. A reader, listener or viewer can also have “an aesthetic” in this sense. Here it refers to her convictions about art or her preferences. However, “aesthetics” also has a theoretical usage.

With respect to our concerns in this chapter, there are several uses of the term “aesthetics” that call for comment. One of these is very broad; another is narrow; and a third is tendentious.

In the broadest sense, “aesthetics” is roughly equivalent to “the philosophy of art. On this broad usage, introductory courses to the topics discussed in this book are often called “aesthetics. In this regard, this book might have been entitled Aesthetics rather than Philosophy of Art. Here “aesthetics” and “the philosophy of art” are interchangeable. Choosing one over the other is a matter of indifference. This is a loose sense, but one that is frequent, even among philosophers.

However, for theoretical purposes, “aesthetics” also has a narrower meaning. “Aesthetics” originally derives from the Greek work, aisthesis, which means “sense perception” or “sensory cognition. In the middle of the eighteenth century, this term was adapted by Alexander Baumgarten as the label covering the philosophical study of art. Baumgarten chose this label because he thought that artworks primarily address sensory perception and very low-level forms of cognition. The important thing to notice about Baumgarten’s usage of the term is that he looked at art from the reception side of things. He conceived of it from the perspective of the way in which art addresses spectators.

Thus, when philosophers talk about aesthetics in the narrower sense,


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