In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Continental Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Embodiment
  • Critiques of Science and Technology
  • Psychoanalysis and Feminism
  • Metaphor
  • The Sublime
  • Excess and Affect
  • Immanence: Deleuze and Guattari

Philosophy Continental Aesthetics
Clive Cazeaux
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0129


Aesthetics in the Continental tradition of philosophy offers some of the most stimulating and influential ideas about art, sensory experience, and culture in modern thought. Whereas analytic aesthetics approaches questions about art by formulating clear and precise statements that can go on to become the basis for logical analysis, Continental inquiry pays greater heed to thought and language as things that are lived and performed and that have a history. As a result, aesthetics in the Continental tradition is less about art subject to strict philosophical questioning (with philosophical method taken as a given and not itself in question) and more about the following: (1) philosophy attending to the particular conditions in which it and thinking in general take place and where these conditions might be sensory, embodied, artistic, linguistic, historical, cultural, or metaphysical; (2) art’s role in exploring, extending, or making manifest these conditions; and (3) the new, emancipatory ways of living that might be created once the plastic, contingent, and generative nature of thought is grasped. In short, Continental aesthetics is the rethinking of art, philosophy, human being, and metaphysics. The Continental aesthetic tradition has its origins in Immanuel Kant, German idealism, and romanticism, and this article focuses on the principal schools, authors, and themes from Kant to the present.

General Overviews

Continental aesthetics is not an easy subject to survey for a number of reasons. First, Continental philosophy tends to be more author oriented than problem oriented. Philosophical texts, especially those where style is philosophically significant, are things to be interpreted and examined for as much (if not more) about what they disclose regarding the author’s position and oeuvre than how they address a particular problem. As such, scholarship tends to cluster around or between authors rather than work on problems that would promote a more general attitude. Second, the Continental-analytic distinction is a contentious one. It is judged by many to be the product of competing institutional forces rather than confirmation of the existence of distinct philosophical styles. Third, the aesthetic is central to Continental philosophy because the particularities of sensory or emotional experience present a challenge to thought. Discussions about art and aesthetics very quickly draw on social, ethical, political, and ontological considerations, meaning Continental aesthetics very quickly becomes Continental philosophy as a whole. However, overviews or studies that come close are available, with some of the above considerations evident in them. Book-length surveys of the history of German aesthetics can be found in Hammermeister 2002 and Schaeffer 2009, while article-length surveys of French and German aesthetics are given in Cutrofello 2005, Wicks 2009, and Aesthetics in Continental Philosophy. The Continental-analytic distinction is explored in Bowie 2007 and Critchley 2001, with the art-like nature of Continental philosophy explicit in the former and implicit in the latter. Eagleton 1990 and Ferry 1993 are good on the social, ethical, and philosophical reach of Continental aesthetics. Rapaport 1996 offers insights into the application of a range of Continental thinkers to particular works of art.

  • Bowie, Andrew. Music, Philosophy, and Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511487569

    As well as being a novel and stimulating appraisal of philosophy as music, the introduction is an excellent discussion of the differences between Continental and analytic aesthetics.

  • Critchley, Simon. Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192853592.001.0001

    A pocket-size guide to Continental philosophy and the distinction between analytic and Continental thought. Although aesthetics is not discussed in detail, Critchley’s formulation of the Continental philosophical project as being one of praxis, critique, and emancipation provides a suitable context for understanding the force that aesthetics has in this tradition.

  • Cutrofello, Andrew. Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    The first chapter is an overview of Continental aesthetics since the late 20th century, focusing on the themes of art and truth and on spontaneity and receptivity. The book’s introduction is another helpful intervention in the debate over the Continental-analytic distinction.

  • Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

    A study of the various ways the category of the aesthetic is shaped by wider social, political, and ethical issues from Immanuel Kant to postmodernism.

  • Ferry, Luc. Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age. Translated by Robert de Loaiza. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    A study of the contest between subjectivity and objectivity created by the invention of the concept of taste. It covers aesthetics prior to Kant; the work of Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche; and the transition from modernism to postmodernism.

  • Hammermeister, Kai. The German Aesthetic Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613883

    A systematic overview of German aesthetics from 1750 (Alexander Baumgarten and Moses Mendelssohn) to the middle of the 20th century (Theodor W. Adorno).

  • Rapaport, Herman. Is There Truth in Art? Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

    A useful display of Continental philosophy (the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas) applied to particular works of art.

  • Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger. Translated by Steven Rendall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    A reappraisal of the aesthetic theories of Kant, Friedrich von Schlegel, Novalis, Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, with a polemical twist. Schaeffer claims their promotion of art as the revelation of the essence of the world is responsible for the high art–popular art divide. Rejecting this approach, he makes a reasoned plea for a more inclusive approach to art. First published in 2000.

  • Wicks, Robert. “Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Continental Aesthetics.” In A Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, 51–60. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310436

    A good, concise survey, focusing on the arguments of key figures from Kant to Gilles Deleuze.

  • Woodward, Ashley. “Aesthetics in Continental Philosophy.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. Martin: University of Tennessee.

    Another good, concise survey, covering the main branches of Continental aesthetics, and their key thinkers, from phenomenology and hermeneutics to more-recent developments, up to and including Jacques Rancière. There is also a good opening section on the place of aesthetics in Continental thought.

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