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Philosophy Analytic Approaches to Aesthetics
by
Peter Lamarque

Introduction

Aesthetics is broadly that branch of philosophy concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of beauty, the nature of art, and the principles of art criticism. Some of these questions go back to the ancient Greeks, but systematic study of the foundations of aesthetics did not begin until the 18th century. Analytic philosophers turned their attention to this branch of the subject relatively late and in the 1940s and 50s tended to be scornful of what they found (John Passmore famously wrote of the “dreariness” of aesthetics in 1951 in the journal Mind). However, in the fifty years up to the turn of the 21st century, and beyond that point, analytic approaches to aesthetics developed with considerable sophistication and there is now a huge literature on all aspects of the subject under the broad heading of “analytic aesthetics.” Other approaches exist, of course, notably that associated with Continental philosophy, which is more historically oriented. The analytic approach is rooted in the analysis of concepts (albeit increasingly informed by work in the empirical sciences) and tends to examine issues about the nature of art and the aesthetic qualities of objects in an ahistorical manner, even if noting and evaluating ideas from earlier periods. In the years since the early 1990s there has been a notable growth in attention to the individual arts (music, painting, literature, film, etc.). Important developments in the aesthetics of nature and the environment have also occurred.

Anthologies

There are several collections of papers that give a thorough overview of analytical work in aesthetics, showing the range of topics covered and current thinking about them. Lamarque and Olsen 2003 collects influential papers on analytic aesthetics from its first flowering in the 1950s up to the present day. Schaper 1983 includes some contributions from analytic philosophers, such as John McDowell, not usually associated with aesthetics. Gaut and Lopes 2005 and Levinson 2003 between them give fairly comprehensive and even-handed coverage of topics and ideas currently being debated, written by leading specialists. Kivy 2004 offers longer and more polemical articles again by leading contemporary figures, each developing and defending a particular point of view. Kieran 2005 usefully explores core debates using pairs of specially written papers taking different sides on current issues. Feagin and Maynard 1997 and Neill and Ridley 1995 are large and popular anthologies that include but extend beyond the analytic, both offering a broader context historically and in terms of methodology.

  • Feagin, Susan, and Patrick Maynard, eds. Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    A useful and imaginative selection of papers and extracts with a wide historical and cross-cultural sweep.

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  • Gaut, Berys, and Dominic McIver Lopes, eds. Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

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    Parts II, III, and IV, on, respectively, aesthetic theory, issues and challenges, and the individual arts, are detailed and accessible studies from an analytical point of view of key issues in aesthetics written by prominent contemporary philosophers.

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  • Kieran, Matthew, ed. Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

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    Helpful format using pairs of commissioned articles taking different sides in current debates. Good for seminar discussion, revealing where key disagreements lie.

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  • Kivy, Peter, ed. The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

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    A useful collection of eighteen commissioned articles by contemporary aestheticians. The articles present an overview of an area but also offer sometimes polemical perspectives on their subjects.

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  • Lamarque, Peter, and Stein Haugom Olsen, eds. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition; an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

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    A collection of forty-six papers representing some of the best and most influential work by analytic philosophers in aesthetics from the 1950s to the present. Introductions to each section give a useful overview.

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  • Levinson, Jerrold, ed. Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Forty-eight specially commissioned articles, at an introductory level, on a wide range of topics in current aesthetics, under the headings Background, General Issues in Aesthetics, Aesthetic Issues of Specific Art Forms, and Further Directions in Aesthetics.

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  • Neill, Alex, and Aaron Ridley, eds. The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

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    A judicious wide-ranging selection of material from 20th-century analytical writing back to the ancient Greeks and also including Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Freud, Collingwood, and Adorno, among others.

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  • Schaper, Eva, ed. Pleasure, Preference, and Value: Studies in Philosophical Aesthetics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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    A collection of commissioned papers by leading analytical philosophers, including John McDowell, Philip Pettit, R. A. Sharpe, Anthony Savile, Ted Cohen, and Malcolm Budd. At times quite philosophically demanding.

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Textbooks

There are plenty of general introductions to aesthetics, but not all are specifically focused on analytic philosophy either in the topics discussed or in methodology. Carroll 1999 and Stecker 2005 are especially helpful in exemplifying the use of analytical argument to clarify and assess theories about art. Dickie 1997 is illuminating as a reflection on core themes of analytic aesthetics (also setting them in their historical context), from an author who has made a major contribution to its development. Graham 2005 also sets the scene well, engaging with other approaches, for example, from Continental philosophy. Lyas 1997 is a good introduction for beginners in philosophy, with engaging examples and straightforward exposition. Townsend 1997 is more demanding but full of argument. Neill and Ridley 2007 uses a format that is highly effective for teaching: pairs of articles taking different sides in a debate.

Landmark Works

There are certain landmark works in the second half of the 20th century that stand out as especially influential in the development of analytic approaches to aesthetics. Elton 1954 brought together papers on aesthetics from prominent analytic philosophers; its polemical purpose was to show, in effect, how aesthetics ought to be done. Beardsley 1958, a large and comprehensive work, illustrated that the analytic approach need not be small-scale and piecemeal (as some of the contributors in Elton 1954 had suggested); it proposed that aesthetics should be “metacriticism,” a second-order study of the principles of art criticism, but actually turned out to be more ambitious than that itself, with a wide-ranging account of how the arts fit into human life. Sibley 1959 turned attention to aesthetic concepts applied to art and other objects (and significantly went beyond the 18th-century fixation with beauty alone). Danto 1964 and Danto 1981 moved in a different direction, away from the aesthetic qualities of art toward its social or institutional groundings, a move taken up in Dickie 1974 that offered the first fully worked out institutional definition of art. Goodman 1968 introduced to aesthetics the rigorous style of a prominent Harvard logician; no adequate theory of pictorial representation could fail to engage with its controversial view of representation as a mode of denotation. Wollheim 1968 in a concise and readable form addressed fundamental issues about the ontology of art and the “form of life” in which it gets its meaning. Finally, the monumental Walton 1990, offering a unified account of many issues through the idea of “make-believe,” is notable not just for its influence in aesthetics but for its impact in other areas of philosophy (e.g., philosophy of mind and language).

  • Beardsley, Monroe C. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958.

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    An early and highly influential full-scale treatment of aesthetics from the analytic perspective. Reflects on all the arts and on problems of interpretation and evaluation.

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  • Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld.” Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571–584.

    DOI: 10.2307/2022937Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces the idea of an “artworld” and argues that what makes something a work of art rests not on what it looks like, but on its role within a social and intellectual milieu. Uses Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” to illustrate his argument.

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  • Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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    Full development of Danto’s important conception of art, deploying the method of “indiscernibles.”

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  • Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.

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    Presents Dickie’s original version of the institutional definition of art, which remains influential even though he refined the theory in later writings.

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  • Elton, William, ed. Aesthetics and Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 1954.

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    An early collection of papers—several by prominent philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle, Stuart Hampshire, O. K. Bouwsma, and John Passmore—illustrating and promoting analytical methods in aesthetics.

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  • Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a General Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

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    A difficult but immensely important book by an eminent Harvard philosopher and logician, giving art a central role in human cognition, alongside science, and exploring its complex modes of denotation and symbolism.

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  • Sibley, Frank. “Aesthetic Concepts.” Philosophical Review 68 (1959): 421–450.

    DOI: 10.2307/2182490Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A careful analysis of aesthetic concepts, such as unified, balanced, delicate, etc., pointing out their logical peculiarities in contrast to nonaesthetic concepts, such as red, square, etc. Important both for its content and its methodology. Reprinted in Sibley’s Approaches to Aesthetics: Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics, edited by John Benson, Betty Redfern, and Jeremy Roxbee Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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  • Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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    An impressive unified account of artistic representation—with applications to pictures, fictionality, and ontology—using the core idea of “games of make-believe.” Walton’s make-believe theory has been taken up in areas of philosophy well beyond aesthetics.

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  • Wollheim, Richard. Art and Its Objects: An Introduction to Aesthetics. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

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    Influential reflections on the ontology of art and the role of “seeing as” in artistic representation by a preeminent figure in analytic aesthetics. A second edition was published by Cambridge University Press in 1980 with six supplementary essays developing its central themes.

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Defining Art

It is often thought, though not universally so, that giving a definition of art is a necessary first stage to any adequate philosophy of art. Efforts in this endeavor are helpfully summarized in Adajian 2007 and, at greater length, in Davies 1991, which attempts to categorize different kinds of definitions. Weitz 1956 famously argues that the very exercise is misguided, given the creative nature of art. Gaut 2000 is a bridge between Weitz’s anti-essentialism and those that propose full-scale definitions. Other philosophical works, notably Dickie 1983 and Levinson 1979, have insisted that a definition is possible, once formulated in the right terms. Carroll 2001 does not think a definition as such is possible, but proposes an account of how we identify artworks, particularly those of a disputed kind, by means of narratives connecting them to earlier works. Beardsley 1983 offers a definition in terms of aesthetic experience, although, as he recognizes, Beardsley’s account does not readily fit conceptual art or other kinds of avant-garde works. Carroll 2000 is a collection of papers showing contemporary philosophers addressing the definitional issue and presenting a state-of-the-art survey of the different candidates on offer.

Ontology of Art

The ontology of art raises questions about what kind of thing works of art are, to what ontological category they belong. A simple and standard view is that there is no single category to which all works belong but that some works, such as paintings, carved sculptures, and buildings, are particulars (e.g., physical objects), whereas other works, such as poems, symphonies, and dramas, are abstract entities of some kind, allowing for multiple instantiations. Wollheim 1980 importantly explains the latter class by invoking the distinction between types and tokens; thus, a poem or a symphony is a type, of which individual copies or performances are tokens. Wolterstorff 1980 offers a variant of this theory, referring not to types but to “norm-kinds.” Other philosophers place artworks into a single category. Thus, Currie 1989 sees all works as types, that is, types of action, the action of discovering a structure through a “heuristic path.” Davies 2004 takes a similar line, although identifying works with token performances (art-making). Margolis 1980 sees works of art as “emergent” entities never identical to their physical embodiment. Rohrbaugh 2005 offers a detailed survey and assessment of these and other ideas, and Thomasson 2004 provides judicious comments on how one might arbitrate in the debates.

Aesthetic Properties and Aesthetic Experience

A central issue for analytic aestheticians has been the nature of, indeed the very reality of, aesthetic properties and aesthetic experiences. The topics are related—aesthetic experiences are sometimes thought to be experiences directed to the aesthetic qualities of objects—but can also be treated separately. Focus has been given to the “reality” or otherwise of aesthetic properties, the extent to which they genuinely adhere in objects rather than being merely projected onto them. Levinson 2001 and Zemach 1997 make the case for realism, suitably qualified. Sibley 2001 looks at what objectivity amounts to in aesthetics, and Bender 2003 expresses skepticism about realism. Walton 1970 is a highly influential contribution showing how the perception of aesthetic qualities in art depends on the “categories” to which works are assigned. Iseminger 2003 surveys the issues surrounding aesthetic experience, not least being the important treatment by Beardsley, for example, in Beardsley 1982. Dickie 1964 attacks Beardsley’s earlier theory of the “aesthetic attitude,” but Carroll 2002 brings the discussion up to date by reassessing the options for any adequate account of aesthetic experience.

  • Beardsley, Monroe C. “Aesthetic Experience.” In The Aesthetic Point of View: Selected Essays. Edited by Michael Wreen and Donald Callen. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

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    A clear statement of the importance of aesthetic experience by one of its foremost defenders among analytic aestheticians.

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  • Bender, John W. “Aesthetic Realism 2.” In Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 80–98. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A good survey of the topic, concluding that the case for aesthetic realism, that is, realism about aesthetic properties, has not been made.

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  • Carroll, Noël. “Aesthetic Experience Revisited.” British Journal of Aesthetics 42 (2002): 145–168.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjaesthetics/42.2.145Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Revives interest in aesthetic experience and defends a content-based view, in terms of the kinds of objects toward which aesthetic experiences are directed, in favor of affect- or value-based theories.

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  • Dickie, George. “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude.” American Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1964): 56–66.

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    Influential paper rejecting the idea that there is a distinctive “aesthetic attitude”—a paper largely responsible for the subsequent decline of interest in this idea.

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  • Iseminger, Gary. “Aesthetic Experience.” In Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 99–116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A clear and comprehensive overview of the principal positions on aesthetic experience.

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  • Levinson, Jerrold. “Aesthetic Properties, Evaluative Force, and Differences of Sensibility.” In Aesthetic Concepts: Essays After Sibley. Edited by Emily Brady and Jerrold Levinson, 61–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    A defense of aesthetic realism in terms of dispositions in objects to afford distinctive phenomenal experiences, which are separable from evaluative attitudes taken to those experiences. Quite demanding.

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  • Sibley, Frank. “Objectivity and Aesthetics.” In Approaches to Aesthetics: Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics. Edited by John Benson, Betty Redfern, and Jeremy Roxbee Cox, 71–87. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    A nuanced defense of objectivity in aesthetic judgments and reflections on when it might be legitimate to speak of aesthetic “properties.”

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  • Walton, Kendall L. “Categories of Art.” Philosophical Review 79 (1970): 334–367.

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    Argues, with ramifications right across aesthetics, that the perception of aesthetic qualities in a work of art rests not only on the intrinsic perceptual qualities of the work itself but also on facts about its provenance and context, not the least being the “category” to which it belongs.

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  • Zemach, Eddy. Real Beauty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

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    A thorough-going but technically difficult defense of aesthetic realism.

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Meaning and Interpretation

Given the nature of analytic philosophy, it is not surprising that questions of meaning have been prominent in debates in aesthetics. A key question has centered on the aims of interpretation in art (and literary) criticism. Is the interpreter’s aim to recover what was in the mind of the artist or perhaps to put a creative construction on the work to reveal its full potentialities regardless of whether the artist had thought through all the possibilities? The papers in Margolis and Rockmore 2000 produce a useful overview of the subtleties of the debate, as does Barnes 1988, although the latter can be quite demanding with its logical formulations. Krausz 2002 lays out reasoned defenses of different positions by prominent contributors. Iseminger 1992 and Livingston 2007 tackle the specific question of the role of intention in interpretation, and Stecker 1997 defends a version of intentionalism.

Art and Knowledge

The question of whether it is a central aim or achievement of art to advance knowledge, for example, about human psychology or human nature, is hotly debated. The question is not so much the factual one, whether people do actually learn from works of art, but rather whether art can provide a special route to knowledge, which gives art a distinctive value. Stolnitz 1992 is skeptical about “artistic truth,” and Lamarque 2006 expresses caution about giving undue weight to knowledge as a core value of art. In contrast, Gaut 2003 and some papers in Kieran and Lopes 2007 make the case for art’s role in human cognition, whereas Nussbaum 1990 and John 1998 promote the special cognitive powers of literature.

Values of Art

Philosophers ask how the values of art relate to other values and also what criteria are available for making judgments about individual works. The question of whether artistic value can be a subject of objective reasoning is also prominent. Lamarque 2009 offers general observations about these issues, and Budd 1995 gives a sophisticated survey of competing theories as well as developing a novel account. Goldman 1995 also proposes its own subtle view of aesthetic and artistic value. Savile 1982 explains and defends the test of time as a criterion of value. Sibley 2001 examines the role of reasons in aesthetic judgments, but Goldman 2006 argues that such judgments are not subject to general principles. Gaut 2007 tackles a much debated issue, advancing the case for the relevance of ethical values in some assessments of aesthetic value.

Analytic Aesthetics and the Individual Arts

A notable feature of aesthetics in the early 21st century has been the attention given to the individual arts. Thus, for example, the philosophy of music, the philosophy of the visual arts, and the philosophy of literature are now important subbranches of aesthetics with their own distinctive debates and problems.

Music

Prominent issues in the philosophy of music concern musical expressiveness, music and meaning, and the ontology of music. For an excellent and opinionated overview of the field, the best starting point is Scruton 1997. Kivy 1993 is a collection of papers by Peter Kivy, a major contributor to all aspects of the subject. Budd 1985 explores theories of emotion in music in a mostly critical vein but is a good foundation for subsequent work. Davies 1994 examines meaning in music, usefully identifying the main issues. Levinson 1980 initiated a large and continuing literature on the ontology of music, notably on the consequences of taking musical works to be abstract entities. Dodd 2007 is a full-length challenge to Levinson, even rejecting the view that musical works are strictly created (rather than discovered).

Pictorial Art

A large amount has been written by philosophers on the nature of depiction, how two-dimensional pictures can represent objects, real or fictional. The simple idea that pictures represent by resembling their subject matter has come in for serious criticism, not least in Goodman 1976, although Hopkins 1999 gives a sophisticated reappraisal. Goodman 1976 rejects resemblance in favor of denotation, and Wollheim 1998 explains representation in terms of a special kind of perception, “seeing in,” whereas Lopes 1996 focuses on the relation between representation and interpretation. Walton 2008 famously appeals to “games of make-believe” in the perception of pictures and argues for the “transparency” of photography. Scruton 1983 controversially argues that photographs are not representations at all. Dutton 1983 is a fascinating collection of papers on forgery that in different ways reveal important aspects of pictures and why they are valued.

Literature

For a good overview of topics in the philosophy of literature, see Davies 2007, Lamarque 2009, and John and Lopes 2004. Olsen 1987 positions literary aesthetics in relation to literary theory and takes a polemical stand in favor of an “institutional” view of literature. Lamarque and Olsen 1994 is a lengthy treatment of the issue of how fiction and literature relate to truth. Searle 1979 is an important paper on the logic of fiction, applying speech act theory, and Radford 1975 offers an entertaining and extensively debated argument that it is irrational to respond emotionally to fictional characters.

Other Art Forms

Carroll 2008 surveys philosophical issues about film, and Carroll 1998 analyzes mass or popular art in all its forms. Both provide state-of-the-art treatment within analytic philosophy. Among discussions of other arts that have captured the attention of analytic philosophers, Friday 2002 on photography, Hamilton 2007 on theater, Hopkins 2003 on sculpture, and Sparshott 2004 on dance each provide a useful overview and offer further readings.

Nature and the Environment

Hepburn 1966 is often said to be the start of modern analytical interest in the aesthetics of nature. Brady 2003, Carlson 2008, Parsons 2008, and Berleant and Carlson 2004 between them cover all aspects of this burgeoning branch of aesthetics and provide a comprehensive overview. Carlson 2000 and Budd 2002 are good samples of the work of two of the leading analytic contributors. Saito 2007 introduces a relatively new application of the aesthetics of the environment in looking at aesthetic responses to everyday objects and situations.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0004

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