Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics

Essays on Art, Aesthetics, and Culture

by Lars-Olof Ahlberg (Author)
©2015 Monographs 427 Pages


The essays in the first part of this book, «Art and Aesthetics», are devoted to the invention and development of aesthetics as a discipline. The essays’ topics range from the nature of analytic aesthetics and the invention of modern aesthetics to notions of the aesthetic and of aesthetics. Further study in this part explores the «aesthetic turn», Bourdieu’s critique of aesthetics and understanding and appreciating art. The second part, «Music, Literature, and Painting», deals with questions of form and content, musical formalism, Susanne Langer’s theory of music as well as with the analogy between ornament and music and the values of literature. In addition, there is an essay on «Northern Light and Darkness in Music and Painting». The third part, «Heidegger and the Essence of Art», is devoted to Heidegger’s philosophy of art, in particular to the role he assigns to van Gogh and Hölderlin. And in the fourth and final part, «Modernity/Postmodernity and Culture», postmodern conceptions of history and Lyotard’s theory of the postmodern sublime are discussed, and in the last essay the challenge of evolutionary psychology to the humanities is addressed.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • I. Art and Aesthetics
  • 1. The Nature and Limits of Analytic Aesthetics
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Conceptions of Philosophy
  • III. The Nature of Analytic Aesthetics
  • Postscript
  • 2. The Invention of Modern Aesthetics: From Leibniz to Kant
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • 3. Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • VI
  • VII
  • VIII
  • 4. Aesthetics, Philosophy of Culture, and “The Aesthetic Turn”
  • I. Introduction
  • II. The Aesthetic Field
  • III. Aspects of Aestheticization
  • IV. Shusterman Ethics and Aesthetics
  • V. Welsch, Knowledge and Reality
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Postscript
  • 5. The Distinction Between Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art: Remarks on Bourdieu’s Critique of Aesthetics
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • 6. Understanding and Appreciating Art: The Relevance of Experience
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • II. Music, Literature, and Painting
  • 1. On Form and Content
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Form in Aesthetics
  • II.1 Form in Literature
  • II.2 Form in Painting
  • II.3 Form and Music
  • II.4 Form and Artistic Value
  • III. Conclusion
  • 2. Formalism in Music:Eduard Hanslick and Peter Kivy
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Hanslick’s Argument
  • III. Kivy’s Semi-Hanslickian Theory
  • 3. Susanne Langer on Representation and Emotion in Music
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Music as a symbol of emotive life
  • III. Kivy, Levinson and the experienced listener
  • 4. The Analogy between Ornament and Music
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • 5. Northern Light and Darkness in Music and Painting, or, the Artistic Expression of Cultural Identity
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • 6. Art, Literature and Value
  • I. Introduction
  • II. The Concept of Art
  • II.1 The Generic Concept of Art
  • II.2 Art as an Open Concept
  • II.3 Art as an Institutional Concept
  • II.4 Identifying Art
  • III. The Concept of Literature
  • III.1 The Meanings of “Literature”
  • III.2 Defining Literature
  • III.3 Literature as an Institutional Concept
  • III.4 Literature and Value
  • III. Heidegger and the Essence of Art
  • 1. Heidegger’s Van Gogh
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Things, Works and the Nature of Equipment
  • III. Truth, Work and World
  • IV. Conclusion
  • 2. Being, Art, and Great Art
  • I. Aesthetics and Art
  • II. Heidegger’s Conception of Art
  • III. Van Gogh’s Shoes
  • IV. Great Art
  • V. Being, the Question of Art and Politics
  • Concluding Remarks
  • IV. Modernity/Postmodernity and Culture
  • 1. Postmodernism, History, and “The Linguistic Turn”
  • I. Introduction
  • II. Postmodern approaches to history
  • III. Postmodernism and the limits of relativism
  • 2. The Visible, the Invisible, and the Sublime: Reflexions on the Lyotardian Sublime
  • I
  • II
  • 3. Scientism, Humanism, and the Humanities: The Challenge of Evolutionary Psychology
  • I. Introduction
  • II. The Programme of Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology
  • III. Biological and Genetic Causation
  • IV. Two Problems: Self-Reference and Explanatory Vacuity
  • V. Altruism, Sex, Art and Memetics
  • VI. Concluding Remarks
  • Postscript
  • Plates I-XIV
  • Photo credits
  • Index of Names

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The artists have been too much occupied in the practice; the philosophers have done little; and what they have done, was mostly with a view to their own schemes and systems.

— Edmund Burke (1757)

The essays in the present volume span over a period of more than twenty years. Most of the essays originate from conferences and symposia I have attended in various venues. Although my approach to the problems of aesthetics and the philosophy of art — I do not think they are the same — has remained virtually identical over the years I have learnt much by participating in conferences organized by the British Society of Aesthetics, the Slovenian Society of Aesthetics, the German Society of Aesthetics, the Austrian Wittgenstein Society, the International Association for Aesthetics as well conferences organized by the Nordic Society of Aesthetics. If nothing else, the conferences I have attended have made me aware of the extreme heterogeneity of approaches to the arts and to culture that go under the name of “aesthetics”.

The essays in the first part, “Art and Aesthetics”, deal primarily with questions concerning the nature and function of aesthetics as a discipline, or, should I say, its lack of discipline. The first essay, “The Nature and Limits of Analytic Aesthetics” (I.1), was occasioned by the publication of the collection of essays, Analytic Aesthetics (1989), edited by Richard Shusterman, and Karlheinz Lüdeking’s Analytische Philosophie der Kunst (1988). In this essay I discuss some of the then recent characterizations of the nature of analytic aesthetics; in particular I take issue with the view that analytic aesthetics is characterized by a repudiation of essentialism concerning art. I have also contrasted the analytic tradition in philosophy with the so-called continental tradition and discussed some of the features that have been regarded as characteristic of each tradition. It seems to me that it is much harder today to adequately characterize the differences and the overlaps between these traditions in contemporary philosophy, not only because of the profusion of publication in aesthetics and the philosophy of art in the past twenty years but also, and more importantly, because there are no agreed upon criteria available for characterizing them. In “The Invention of Modern Aesthetics: From Leibniz to Kant” (I.2) I explore some issues regarding the birth of modern aesthetics and in “Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics” (I.3) I argue for a contextualist (and historicist) approach to the concept of the aesthetic and of aesthetics. I fully agree with Terry Diffey’s claim that “[i]n any account we give of the concept of art we must remember that the concept ← 7 | 8 → has a history” and his further claim to the effect that it is far from easy to say exactly what to make of this claim.1 In any case, “in a full treatment of the topic of the historicity of concepts much would have to be said about the historicity of other concepts” as well,2 as Diffey puts it. Diffey does not explicitly mention the concept of aesthetics and of the aesthetic in this context, but I believe that those concepts are good candidates for historicizing analyses as well. A way forward, at least for me, lies in that direction. The essay “Aesthetics, Philosophy of Culture, and ‘The Aesthetic Turn’” (I.4) is devoted to some theories of the “aestheticization” of culture and the conceptions of aesthetics proposed by Wolfgang Welsch and Richard Shusterman. In the short essay “The Distinction between Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art” (I.5) I take issue with Bourdieu’s critique of aesthetics (as such) arguing that his attempt to reduce aesthetics and art appreciation to a purely descriptive sociology of art fails. The essay on “Understanding and Appreciating Art” (I.6) deals with some more specific questions, in particular the role of cognitive values in the experience of art.

A historicist and contextualist approach to the philosophy of art and aesthetics is, I believe, fully compatible with a (philosophical) interest in particular works of art and in the particularity of particular works of art. Much contemporary philosophizing about the arts — both in the analytic and the continental mode — tends to move on an extremely abstract level far removed from the reality and the vagaries of the artworld running the risk of losing sight of what, after all, should be the object of primary interest, the practices of the artworlds and the works of art themselves.

The essays in part two, “Music, Literature, and Painting”, are devoted to more specific questions concerning these art forms. The first essay is devoted to the concepts of form and content in the arts (II.1), the following essays deal with Eduard Hanslick’s and Peter Kivy’s influential formalist theories of music and Susanne Langer’s semi-formalist philosophy of music (II.2 and II.3). The bulk of the essay “The Analogy between Ornament and Music” (II.4) is devoted to Peter Kivy’s intriguing essay “The fine art of repetition”. In the last essay of part two, “Art, Literature and Value” (II.6), I discuss the concept of literature in relation to the generic concept of art, as well as aspects of appreciating and evaluating literary works. In the fifth essay of part two, “Northern Light and Darkness in Music and Painting, or, the Artistic Expression of Cultural Identity” (II.5), I discuss the ← 8 | 9 → notion that works of art can be expressive of cultural identity. By way of illustration I focus on some paradigmatic works by Nordic painters and composers.

The third section is exclusively devoted to Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of art and has thus a different character from the other parts. My critical remarks on Heidegger’s philosophy of art in “Heidegger’s van Gogh” are informed by my scepticism concerning the claims of essentialist theories of art purporting to unveil the essence of art and of the work of art as such. In the following essay, “Being, Art, and Great Art”, I discuss once more Heidegger’s approach to art, taking account of some of the most important recent contributions to the interpretation of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” focussing also on other relevant Heidegger texts from the 1930s.

The essays in the fourth part, “Modernity/Postmodernity and Culture”, deal with wider issues concerning art, culture and philosophy. Some paradigmatic postmodernist approaches to culture and history are criticized in the first essay, “Postmodernism, History, and ‘The Linguistic Turn’” (IV.1), the theme of the second essay, “The Visible, the Invisible, and the Sublime” (IV.2), is Jean-François Lyotard’s theory of the sublime in painting. In the last essay, “Scientism, Humanism, and the Humanities” (IV.3), I discuss evolutionary approaches to art and culture. Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new discipline, an offshoot of sociobiology, which in recent years has attracted the attention of philosophers, in particular those of a naturalistic bent who think that philosophy is, or rather should be continuous with the natural sciences whereas those who believe that there is an iron curtain between philosophy and the sciences have continued to ignore the claims of evolutionary psychology. It is my view that something might be learnt from evolutionary approaches to art and culture but not as much as the most enthusiastic supporters of evolutionary approaches think. In any case, there is no reason to ignore evolutionary approaches to art and culture, not only because they are “popular” in certain quarters, but also because the evolutionary approach poses many interesting methodological and conceptual challenges to the humanities.

My approach to aesthetics and the philosophy of art has not changed much over the years, I would however phrase some of the things I say in these essays a bit differently today. Nevertheless, I believe that everything I say here is reasonable and adequate, perhaps with one exception. In recent years I have become increasingly interested in the history of aesthetics and in the historicity of the fundamental concepts in aesthetics. This change of emphasis is reflected in some of the essays in the first part of this collection. The history of aesthetics and the philosophy of art is a conceptual goldmine worth exploring in its own right, but it is also, I believe, relevant for understanding contemporary discourses on art and the aesthetic, and thus for understanding art.

1 T. J. Diffey, “Introduction”, in T. J. Diffey, The Republic of Art and Other Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), p. 4.

2 Ibid.

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I thank the following publishers and editors for permission to republish and use material previously published:

Oxford University Press:

I.1 “The Nature and Limits of Analytic Aesthetics”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 33, no.1, 1993, pp. 5–16.

II.3 “Susanne Langer on Representation and Emotion in Music”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 34, no. 1, 1994, pp. 69–80.

The Editor-in Chief, The Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana:

II.1 “On Form and Content” previously published as “Form and Content Revisited”, Filozofski Vestnik, eds. A. Erjavec & V. Likar, vol. 12, no. 1, 1991, pp. 9–26.

I.2 “The Invention of Modern Aesthetics: From Leibniz to Kant”, The Historical Seminar 4: 2001–2003, eds. Metoda Kokole, Vojislav Likar & Peter Weiss (Ljubljana: The Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2003), pp. 133–153.

I.4 “Aesthetics, Philosophy of Culture, and ‘The Aesthetic Turn”’, Filozofski Vestnik, ed. Aleš Erjavec, vol. 22, no. 2, 2001, pp. 21–42.

The President of the Slovenian Society of Aesthetics:

II.2 “Formalism in Music: Eduard Hanslick and Peter Kivy”, Formalism. International Colloquium, vol. 2, ed. Aleš Erjavec (Ljubljana: Slovenian Society for Aesthetics, Ljubljana), 1992, pp. 5–20.

The editors of Uppsala Philosophical Studies, vol. 54:

I.3 “Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics”, Tankar tillägnade Sören Stenlund, eds. Niklas Forsberg, Sharon Rider & Pär Segerdahl, Uppsala Philosophical Studies, vol. 54 (Uppsala University, 2008), pp. 325–345.

The University of Illinois Press:

I.6 “Understanding and Appreciating Art: The Relevance of Experience”, Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 33, no. 1, 1999, pp. 11–23.

The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society:

I.5 “The Distinction between Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art: Remarks on Bourdieu’s Critique of Aesthetics”, Culture and Value: Philosophy and the Cultural Sciences, Papers of the 18th International Wittgenstein Symposium, ← 11 | 12 → eds. Kjell S. Johannessen & Tore Nordenstam (Kirchberg am Wechsel: The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, 1995), pp. 147–153.

The Nordic Society of Aesthetics/The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics:

II.4 “The Analogy between Ornament and Music”, Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, no. 12, 1994, pp. 95–110.

III.1 “Heidegger’s van Gogh”, previously published as “Heidegger’s van Gogh: Reflections on Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art”, Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, no. 8, 1992, pp. 109–131.

Palgrave Macmillan:

II.6 “Art, Literature and Value”, From Text to Literature: New Analytic and Pragmatic Perspectives, eds. Stein Haugom Olsen and Anders Pettersson (Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 52–81.

Peter Lang European Academic Publishers:

IV.1 “Postmodernism, History, and ‘The Linguistic Turn’”, in Essays on Fiction and Perspective, ed. Göran Rossholm (Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 313–349.

The following previously unpublished essays are based on papers given at conferences:

II.5 “Northern Light and Darkness in Music and Painting, or, the Artistic Expression of Cultural Identity”, XIII International Congress of Aesthetics, Ljubljana, 1–5 September 1998.

IV.2 “The Visible, the Invisible, and the Sublime: Reflexions on the Lyotardian Sublime”, The Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Institute of Philosophy, The Project Philosophical Aspects of the Visual and of Contemporary Visual Culture, Ljubljana, 6–8 June 1996.

IV.3 “Humanism, Scientism, and the Humanities: The Challenge of Evolutionary Psychology”, Making a Difference: Rethinking Humanism and the Humanities, Uppsala University, 25–27 September 2003.

I would like to thank David McVicker for checking my English and suggesting improvements, his help has been invaluable. Special mention should also be made of the interlibrary services at the University Library at Uppsala University. Thanks are also due to Susanna Mälarstedt of Sanna Bilder, who prepared the illustrations and procured permission to reproduce them. I would also like to thank the Anders Karitz Foundation and the Sven and Dagmar Salén Foundation for financial support.

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I. Art and Aesthetics

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1. The Nature and Limits of Analytic Aesthetics

I. Introduction

The expression “analytic aesthetics” elicits two questions: “What does ‘analytic’ mean in this case?” and “What is aesthetics?” Since the nature of analytic aesthetics is the main topic of my essay, I will content myself with a few introductory remarks about the scope of the term “aesthetics”. There seem to be, roughly speaking, two main usages of the term prevalent in the artworld today. In the wide sense of the term, “aesthetics” refers to all theoretical study of the arts, in a narrower usage, “aesthetics” is used synonymously with “philosophy of art”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, for example, which has a pronounced philosophical and analytic profile, uses the term “aesthetics” in the wide sense. It includes “all studies of the arts and related types of experience from a philosophic, scientific, or other theoretical standpoint, including those of psychology, sociology, anthropology, cultural history, art criticism, and education”.1

Many philosophers, on the other hand, tend to identify aesthetics with the philosophy of art. To take a recent example, Anne Sheppard has entitled her introduction to the philosophy of art, Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art (1987), and Joseph Margolis speaks in the introduction to the anthology Philosophy Looks at the Arts (1987) of “the philosophy of art — or aesthetics”.2 I think it is preferable to distinguish between aesthetics and the philosophy of art and not to use the expressions “aesthetics” and “philosophy of art” synonymously. According to this view the philosophy of art, or philosophical aesthetics, belongs to the wider field aesthetics but is not identical with it. Since many of the writers I wish to discuss use “aesthetics” and “philosophy of art” synonymously, I will, for the sake of convenience, conform to this usage although I believe one should make a distinction between aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

My essay divides into two parts, in the first part I shall discuss the nature of analytic philosophy, the second part is devoted to two recent discussions of the nature of analytic aesthetics. ← 15 | 16 →

II. Conceptions of Philosophy

Since analytical aesthetics, or analytical philosophy of art, is a form of analytical philosophy, the answer to the question what analytical aesthetics is depends on how we characterize analytical philosophy. There is, however, no unanimity about the nature of analytical philosophy, nor of course about the nature of philosophy. All these concepts are philosophically controversial, it would therefore be a mistake to regard them as innocuous labels. It is of course easy to give a stipulative definition of these terms, but that would be beside the point here.

A few years back, some students and teachers of philosophy at Oxford, dissatisfied with analytic philosophy as it is practised in England and America, decided to form a discussion group. The nature of analytic philosophy was naturally an important theme for them. Although they met regularly for three years they were, as they write in the preface to their book, The Need for Interpretation (1983), “unable to reach any consensus about just what analytical philosophy is”.3 The lack of consensus was certainly not due to any inability on their part to use the standard techniques of definition, they were unable to reach unanimity because the question about the nature of analytical philosophy is itself a philosophical issue.

Since the problem of the nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical problem, different approaches, activities and theories qualify or pass as philosophy. Consider, for example, Quine’s remarks about the status of philosophy: “Philosophy enjoys less firmness and conclusiveness than astrophysics, so that there is some lack of professional consensus as to what even qualifies as responsible philosophy. The astrologer’s counterpart in philosophy can enjoy a professional standing such as the astrologer cannot.”4 Quine obviously distinguishes between rational science and irrational pseudo-science and seems to think that an analogous distinction between rational scientific philosophy and irrational pseudo-scientific philosophy can be drawn, although, apparently irrational and pseudo-scientific philosophy often passes for philosophy. I think Quine underestimates the significance of this lack of consensus. I would also take exception to his view that there is a scientific philosophy that can neatly be distinguished ← 16 | 17 → from pseudo-scientific philosophy. Indeed the very idea of a scientific philosophy seems to me deeply problematic.5

One way of characterizing a philosophical trend or tradition is to contrast it with a different trend or tradition. The French philosopher Pascal Engel, in the article “Continental Insularity: Contemporary French Analytical Philosophy” (1987), describes the differences between analytical philosophy, conceived as a tradition and an attitude, and contemporary French philosophy as follows: Analytical philosophers believe that philosophy like science is a common enterprise, and that therefore philosophical theses are discussable and criticizable. Secondly, analytical philosophers are convinced that there can be progress in philosophy, although not in the same sense as in science. The third characteristic of analytical philosophy is, according to Engel, the belief that philosophy can and should be conducted as a professional and specialized discipline. In sum, one can make worthwhile contributions to philosophy without being a genius. These beliefs and attitudes which resemble what rather loosely could be called “the academic and scientific attitude”, Engel regards as “rationalistic” in a wide sense. Not all analytical philosophers share this rationalistic attitude, but most of them accept it as a regulative idea, Engel claims.6 In contemporary French philosophy the dominant attitudes toward philosophy are very different. They are often, Engel says, “the very reverse of the analytical attitude”.7 Philosophy is viewed as a solitary enterprise, secondly there is the conviction that progress in philosophy is impossible, since philosophy resembles literature more than science, “and the use of argument is more a matter of rhetoric and eloquence than a matter of logic and truth”, as he puts it.8 And finally there is the belief, that “[t]here can only be geniuses in philosophy, giants of thought”.9 If this latter attitude is as widespread as Engel says it is, many French philosophers have reason to worry. A consequence of these attitudes is that French philosophers think that “it is better to have a great number of confused ideas than to have a small number of clear ideas”,10 as Engel puts it a little maliciously. ← 17 | 18 →

This characterization is obviously not exhaustive or very exact. It might even be thought, as Engel himself realizes, that he has given a malevolent caricature of French philosophy.11 Although he admits that “the expression of those beliefs is far more subtle and sophisticated”, he insists that “[a]s a matter of fact, many prominent French philosophers have held such beliefs quite literally, and far from being ashamed of them, they are quite proud of these opinions, which are for them the expression of their passionate fight against what they take to be the tyranny of reason itself”.12 Be that as it may, the general picture he draws of the philosophical climate in France is, as far as I can see, not entirely of the mark. He gives a vivid picture of the difference in atmospheric pressure between the traditions of analytical philosophy and French philosophy.

The rationalistic attitude in a wide sense implies an openness to criticism and a willingness to revise one’s opinions and theories in the face of justified criticism. This attitude coupled with the conviction that the construction of a philosophical system is very risky, if not altogether impossible, accounts partly for the analytical philosopher’s predilection for piecemeal analyses. In consequence the philosophical paper or essay has become the analytical genre par excellence. In the world of analytical philosophy the journals play as important a role as book length studies. Critics of analytical philosophy often claim that the rationalistic attitude characteristic of analytical philosophy precludes philosophical visions and creative thinking. Analytical philosophers are consequently preoccupied with trivialities and pseudo-problems. The Polish-American philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, for example, who has been converted from analytical philosophy to something he calls “eco-philosophy”, a metaphysically and religiously grounded world view, maintains that “[p]resent analytical philosophy is an embodiment of the positivist ethos, which is based on the cult of technique and the avoidance of problems”.13

Skolimowski thinks that the problems contemporary analytical philosophy concerns itself with, like the problem of “sense” and “reference”, once were real and interesting. With Frege, Russell, Leśniewski and Tarski, however, “the creative aspects of the problem have been explored and exhausted”, he claims.14 ← 18 | 19 → Skolimowski takes, I think, an unduly narrow view of analytical philosophy. Formal semantics and analysis based on the calculus conception of language is just one trend, albeit an influential one, in contemporary analytical philosophy. Respect for clarity and consistency do not preclude visionary and rhetorical power, as is shown in the work of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine and Popper, or Goodman, Wollheim and Danto. It could be objected that Wittgenstein is not a typical analytical philosopher or that he is not an analytical philosopher at all,15 but the problems and questions with which he struggled in both his early and his late philosophy stem from the analytical tradition. Moreover, Wittgenstein’s thinking is closer to the analytical tradition than to any other contemporary movement.

Respect for logic and argument and the high value set on clarity are perhaps the most general features of analytical philosophy. The very possibility of a philosophy based on these attitudes or principles is denied by many contemporary philosophers and theorists outside the analytical tradition. Consider, for example, the following résumé of Gianni Vattimo’ s thinking given by his English translator:

[N]ihilism attacks rationality wherever it is encountered, whether in science, philosophy or art, since the concepts of “reason” and “truth” are entirely interdependent in the tradition of Western metaphysical thought. The project of nihilism is to unmask all systems of reason as systems of persuasion, and to show that logic — the very basis of rational metaphysical thought is — in fact only a kind of rhetoric.16

Vattimo, who is regarded by some as one of the most important postmodernist thinkers, opposes his own so called “weak thought” (il pensiero debole) to metaphysical thinking. The view that philosophy as a rational enterprise is impossible today is widespread among postmodernist theorists. This belief is usually based on the conviction that philosophy proper is and remains metaphysics. And since metaphysical and foundational thinking has allegedly lost all credibility and legitimacy, philosophy is impossible, according to this conception.

Here is an example of this attitude to philosophy and philosophizing. The tradition of philosophy is closed, declares the French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. He asserts that ← 19 | 20 →

after the thesis on being, in which philosophizing has its essence, had irreversibly become thesis on being as thesis, all the theses which succeeded it […] have been engulfed in the will to a thesis in which has more and more clearly manifested itself the impossibility of any thesis other than the thesis, thus condemning the will to desire nothing other than its own thesis.17

Not surprisingly Lacoue-Labarthe arrives at the conclusion that “[p]hilosophy is finished/finite (La philosophie est finie); its limit is uncrossable”; that means, he says, that “we can no longer — and we can only — do philosophy, possessing as we do no other language and having not the slightest notion of what ‘thinking’ might mean outside of ‘philosophizing’”.18 If philosophy in some sense is impossible it has apparently been so for a long time, since Lacoue-Labarthe claims that “Husserl’s [work is] in spite of — or rather because of — its claim to be a ‘science’, doubtless is not, properly speaking, a philosophy”.19 What is and what is not a philosophy according to this writer is not easy to determine, in any case I am sure all analytical philosophy, since it cannot be said to concern itself with being as thesis, however conceived, would not be regarded as philosophy. Those who think that philosophy is impossible and proclaim the end of philosophy, think that philosophy worthy of the name must be systematic and metaphysical.

This presupposition comes out clearly in Fredric Jameson’s thoughts on what he calls “contemporary theory”. Jameson thinks that the dissolution of previously unquestioned boundaries and taxonomies is manifest not only in the arts but also in the field of theory. In his article “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1983) Jameson is primarily concerned with the nature of the so-called “postmodern condition” and the role of theory. “A generation ago”, he says, “there was still a technical discourse of professional philosophy […] alongside which one could still distinguish that quite different discourse of the other academic disciplines — of political science, for example, or sociology or literary criticism”.20 Things have changed, he maintains, and today “we have a kind of ← 20 | 21 → writing simply called ‘theory’ which is all or none of those things at once”.21 This new kind of theoretical discourse “is becoming widespread and marks the end of philosophy as such”, Jameson concludes.22 If we are to believe Jameson, most if not all, social and human sciences as well as philosophy, have merged into so-called “theoretical discourse”. It is of course true that there are “discourses” that consciously attempt to transcend the customary and partly conventional barriers between various intellectual disciplines. These discourses can indeed be seen as manifestations of postmodernism. But Jameson’s belief that this is a dominant or even a widespread tendency is mistaken. What is true of some humanities departments in America and some British literature departments, is certainly not true of all universities in Western and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Jameson is guilty of a curious equivocation when he speaks of “the end of philosophy”. For the technical discourses of professional philosophy include according to him “the great systems of Sartre or the phenomenologists, the work of Wittgenstein or analytical or common language philosophy”.23 When he claims that the new theoretical discourse “marks the end of philosophy as such” he obviously thinks that “the great systems of Sartre” etc., are philosophy as such, a quite indefensible view. There is no philosophy as such and when Jameson implies that there is no analytical philosophy any more, this is wishful thinking on his part.

Because of these fundamental misconceptions and confusions about both the nature of analytical philosophy and the philosophical situation at large a fruitful exchange or even a confrontation with the proponents of this new theoretical discourse is difficult, if not impossible. Equally indefensible is the view expressed by the American deconstructionist literary theorist Hillis Miller that “[i]t’s a manifest fact that a great deal of the real philosophy that’s been taught recently has been taught out of Philosophy departments”.24 In view of this it is easy to understand why recent anthologies in the theory of literature, claiming to cover contemporary work and contemporary positions in the theory of literature, do not contain any contributions from analytical aestheticians and philosophers of literature.25 This also explains why there is so little exchange between literary ← 21 | 22 → theorists and analytical aestheticians. As a final example of the lack of communication between continentally inspired “theory” and analytical aesthetics I quote the characterization of aesthetics given by David Carroll in his book Paraesthetics (1987). He asserts that “aesthetics implies the establishment of a theory of art and literature or the application of a general theory to the area of art”.26 The objectives of much analytical aesthetics have in fact been the very opposite to this. In a number of articles Richard Shusterman discusses poststructuralist and deconstructionist theory and tries to find some common ground between the concerns of analytical aesthetics and deconstruction. To my knowledge there has been no response from the other side.27


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
Postmoderne Philosphie der Kunst evolutionäre Psychologie Martin Heidegger
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 427 pp., 14 coloured fig.

Biographical notes

Lars-Olof Ahlberg (Author)

Lars-Olof Åhlberg was Professor of Aesthetics at the Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University (Sweden). He was President of the Nordic Society of Aesthetics 1997-2007 and editor of The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics.


Title: Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics