Philosophy Art and Emotion
Filippo Contesi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0381


The study of the arts in philosophy has often concentrated on the role that emotions (and affective responses more generally) play in art’s creation and value. Philosophical theories of art have sometimes even defined art in terms of its capacity to elicit or express emotions. Philosophers have debated such questions as what it is to express an emotion in art; whether emotions form part of the value of an artwork; whether the emotions involved in art appreciation are of the same kind as those that we experience in real life, or of a different, even sui generis kind (i.e., aesthetic emotions); whether it is rational or appropriate to experience emotions in response to art; and what value, if any, there is in art that evokes unpleasant emotions. Although the focus here will be on what, to a first approximation, can be characterized as the “Western mainstream philosophical tradition,” discussion of the role of emotions in art can also be found in different approaches and traditions of thought: from Indian philosophy to cognitive science, to so-called Continental philosophy.

General Overviews

The most useful brief introduction to the key issues in the contemporary analytic aesthetics debate is Levinson 2006. Neill 2003 and Robinson 2004 provide more argumentative and historically richer introductions, which have the further advantage of discussing the issue of emotion expression. Hjort and Laver 1997 is an exceptionally well-curated collection introducing the views of many of the most prominent players of the end-of-the-century debate.

  • Hjort, Mette, and Sue Laver, eds. Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    A fine collection of original essays on the role of emotions in art appreciation. The essays contained in it are written for the most part by aestheticians, alongside philosophers of mind, psychologists, and literary theorists.

  • Levinson, Jerrold. “Emotion in Response to Art.” In Contemplating Art. By Jerrold Levinson, 38–55. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    This is a brief introduction to the key topics in analytic aesthetics, originally published in 1997 but still useful. It offers original (though on occasion debatable) categorizations of the logical space of the central debates that have occupied analytic aestheticians to this day.

  • Neill, Alex. “Art and Emotion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 421–435. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This is a rich and thought-provoking essay. It is especially good at tracing the history of the different ways in which the emotions can be central to art.

  • Robinson, Jenefer. “The Emotions in Art.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Edited by Peter Kivy, 174–192. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    This critical review of the debate covers a lot of ground both in terms of topics and authors surveyed. It makes an important distinction between cases of emotion expression and cases of emotion elicitation in art.

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