On the category of 'the aesthetic'

  • Graham James McFee Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Brighton, UK; and Department of Philosophy, California State University Fullerton
Keywords: aesthetic, artistic, occasion-sensitive


Those contrasting our appreciation of art (as artistic appreciation) with our appreciation of the other occasions when grace, line, elegance, and so on — or their opposites — (as aesthetic appreciation) typically give much fuller accounts of art-based cases, even though it is recognized that many artworks, although not all, could be perceived — that is, mis-perceived — as objects of aesthetic appreciation. Moreover, here, ascriptions of ‘the aesthetic’ typically reflect the claim to positive aesthetic value, rather than the ‘even-handed’ version described in philosophy, giving weight to ugliness. Such a positive conception is well-exemplified in the philosophy of sport, when the attempt to describe a purist conception of sports spectatorship — one devoted to the sport, but without allegiance to any team — presents that purist as “… enjoying sport for its purely positive and aesthetic aspects” (Mumford, 2012 p. 18): that is, the conception of such spectatorship is as directed to the aesthetic. In part, the argument there seems to assume, mistakenly, that what is not appreciated purposively (for sport, in terms of winning and losing) is thereby appreciated aesthetically.

            But here, following a hint from Austin (1979 p. 180), it is urged that the term “aesthetic” is used in such contexts ‘to rule out the suggestion of some or all of its recognized antitheses’: here, in particular, aesthetic interest is contrasted with, and feeds of, purposive interest. In recognizing this is a typical feature of uses of the term “aesthetic” one has an explanation of previous failures to provide an account of aesthetic appreciation at the same level of comprehensiveness as that offered for artistic appreciation: references to the aesthetic are contextualized to the particular antithetical notion being rejected on that occasion. And that was a feature implicitly recognized in the argument identified above, even if then falsely generalized. Yet there is really not just one contrast here: different antithetical terms may be invoked on different occasions. In this sense, aesthetic judgement is context-dependent or occasion-sensitive (see Travis, 2008 esp. pp. 150-160). And that is what grounds the general difficulty for dealing broadly (and briefly) with the category of the aesthetic.