Philosophy of the Arts


What is Philosophy of Art?

When you do philosophy of art and discuss for instance, paintings and photographs, it makes little sense to make universal claims about aesthetic values. It makes little sense to say what beauty is, full stop, as if it were an eternal idea or form in Plato’s heaven. The point is difficult to grasp but has some interesting consequences.

Not Pure Philosophy

The lure to do pure philosophy of art is understandable. We all know what beauty is, because everyone knows of beautiful things and people. We all know, without hesitation, how to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly (for ourselves). The weird problem here is, in fact, twofold: knowing what beauty and ugliness are seems to involve the thought that all should agree with us, yet we find that this ideal situation is hardly ever met. Since we remember such disagreements from before we will hesitate somewhat, behind “I cannot explain why”—though without automatically retreating behind a relativist subjectivism, “Well, this is how I like it; to each her own taste”. But we can, and do talk about the things and events we deem beautiful, pointing out their salient features, and pointing at them.

A Core Issue

Philosophers of art have dealt with these issues, but in what sense is what they did philosophical and in what sense is it art criticism? Philosophy of art is not an instance of pure philosophy: as said, it makes no sense to try to establish the universal essence of beauty (or other aesthetic qualities). The reason for this is that what we are looking for is a property of the world and what it means to experience it. The issue is: what comes first? We tend to argue that, of course, it must be the properties of the object that we are aware of in some special manner—this answer fits objectivist scientism: the world consists of real properties some of which are perceived in some sense. But there is an alternative to this approach and it starts from the experience and asks what reasons we see for it in the object. Beauty is not built from non-aesthetic properties. Instead, the way the object looks to us is: it touches us and then we ask ourselves Why? So aesthetic values do not supervene on non-aesthetic ones. Non-aesthetic properties subvene under aesthetic properties (and values).

David Hume

I think David Hume knew this, perhaps better than other philosophers.

Aesthetic issues start from their phenomenology, not their ontology. Philosophy of art is not pure philosophy telling us what the real properties of the world (if there are any) consist of, it is applied philosophy. To say something about beauty is to say something about a particular beauty encountered in a particular object. Philosophy of art must be done in relation to the appreciation of art.

Suitable prompting

The point is not that a philosopher of art can say something is the case and point at the object to prove his point. The prompting has to be suitable, and the suitability is what the philosopher of art is after. But suitability without the prompting is meaningless.