Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Disenfranchisement of Philosophical Aesthetics

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Disenfranchisement of Philosophical Aesthetics

Article excerpt

Discontent has been growing among aesthetic theorists about the status of the discipline within philosophy as a whole, a discontent that is manifest in calls for the greater incorporation of art and aesthetic theory into mainstream philosophy. The American Society for Aesthetics, for instance, has formed a "Committee on the Status of Aesthetics in the Academy" in order to document the neglect of the discipline and to work toward achieving a higher profile for the field.1 Mary Devereaux, a "COSA" member, has noted that there can be no disagreement that "philosophers widely regard aesthetics as a marginal field" in the sense that it is "deemed philosophically unimportant," but, she claims, this attitude is misguided and its prevalence is not the fault of the field itself.2 Contemporary aesthetics is a "lively and attractive discipline" which, Devereaux asserts, "is deserving of a more central place in the profession than it currently enjoys."

The question that immediately comes to mind in the face of this discontent is: why is aesthetics on the periphery of philosophical theorizing? Why, for example, in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy's "map" of the various fields of philosophy, is aesthetics consigned to its outermost circle?3 And why should aesthetics pretend to a more central place than its nearest neighbors of the periphery-the philosophies of mathematics, education, law or religion? I will begin by considering weaknesses in one current line of argument about the causes of the disenfranchisement of aesthetics and then suggest an alternative line that provides a richer explanation of the marginalization of the field. I am primarily concerned with seeking to investigate the causes for what others have identified as a problem faced by the discipline; this paper will be, therefore, largely diagnostic. As for prescriptive solutions to this problem, Devereaux realizes that asserting the importance of aesthetics for philosophy is not enough: "the philosophical case for this claim has to be made."4 But making this case requires a deep understanding of the significance of art, not only for philosophical fields in the center, that is, metaphysics and epistemology, but for human lived experience as well, which is a project that can begin only when reasons for its neglect have been fully understood.

The Fall of Aesthetics

The current line of argument about the marginalization of aesthetics can be illustrated through the work of Arthur Danto and Roger Scruton. In Danto's well-known paper, "The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art," he claims that "from the perspective of philosophy, art is a danger and aesthetics the agency for dealing with it."5 he argues that the history of aesthetics shows an effort to defuse and neutralize art from the fear that art could actually "make something happen."6 For Danto the entire history of the philosophical understanding of art is the history of its suppression, which has its roots in Plato's work.7 No matter what the disenfranchising strategy employed, the motivation and outcome have been the same from Plato to Hegel to the present day: through the discipline of aesthetics philosophy has been "responding to the sensed danger of art by treating it metaphysically as though there were nothing to be afraid of."8 And in this it has been successful.

This fear initially prompted efforts to marginalize art, but analytic philosophy most effectively carried them out. Danto claims that since the era of positivism philosophical knowledge has been seen as either secondary to scientific knowledge-as a kind of "pseudo-science," or as vainly trying to imitate the methods of scientific inquiry-as a kind of "proto-science."9 In either case art has become something the philosopher only deals with in the name of systematic completeness, with such systems serving to imprison art and force it to conform to the dominant analytic methodology.10

Roger Scruton lays the blame for the disenfranchisement of aesthetics more directly onto the sciences themselves. …

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