Philosophy Aesthetic Hedonism
by
Mohan Matthen, Zachary Weinstein
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0223

Introduction

Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the only thing that has final, or non-derivative, value: other things are valuable only to the extent that they produce pleasure. In this context, pleasure may be narrowly conceived as an agreeable sensation, or functionally as a psychological response that reinforces a subject’s propensity to perform the action that evokes the response. (Critics of aesthetic hedonism [AH] have often assumed the former, but criticism narrowly based on this conception does not work when leveled against a functional conception.) Either way, it makes value depend on human response, not on objective qualities. AH applies this thesis to aesthetic value, holding that it derives from aesthetic pleasure. AH runs contrary to objectivism—the idea that aesthetic value is independent of the value of experience (experience being, at most, an apprehension of value). AH starts from the fact that human beings “like” art; aesthetic value is then understood as the instrumental value of giving them what they like. However, great tragedy arouses negative emotions, and the best art is cognitively difficult to understand. These are psychological barriers to engagement and appreciation. AH must show why these barriers do not reduce value. Most aesthetic hedonists address the difficulty by delimiting the scope either of hedonism or of aesthetic pleasure. Some, e.g. Hume, say that art must be valued relative to the response of somebody who has been sufficiently exposed to it, and has thus developed “taste”; only the pleasure that such subjects take in art is probative. Others, e.g. Kant, posit a special kind of pleasure characteristic of aesthetic appreciation. This, he says, is “disinterested,” and thus different from the mere “agreeability” of food and sex, and also of low art—it is, nevertheless, a form of pleasure. In other treatments, other human motivations are invoked, including emotional immersion in Indian “rasa” theory, social harmony in Confucius, forms of eroticism (an idea that traces back to Plato), Freudian negative impulses such as the death wish, and vitalistic life forces. These are not forms of hedonism in the strict sense, but they are founded on human response, and so they are anti-objectivist in tenor. More recently, ideas from other areas of philosophy—specifically philosophy of mind and value theory—have been employed for and against AH, including nontraditional ways of understanding the nature of pleasure. The authors would like to acknowledge research support from the Australian Research Council DP 150103143 as part of the research project Taste and Community led by Jennifer A. McMahon, on which Mohan Matthen was a co-investigator.

General Overviews

Lopes 2018 is the only overview specifically devoted to AH. The broad issues of hedonism (closely related to what is sometimes called “empiricism”) and aesthetic value are treated in a number of scene-setting introductory articles. The most specific treatment is Stecker 2004. Herwitz 2014 is an excellent historical treatment of aesthetic pleasure and Zangwill 2014 contains a useful discussion of how normative aesthetic judgments relate to subjective responses. Treatments of the role of pleasure in aesthetic responses to art are also embedded in Guyer 2005, Shelley 2013, and Korsmeyer 2013.

  • Guyer, Paul. “History of Modern Aesthetics.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 25–60. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Indispensable historical overview of theories of aesthetic experience.

  • Herwitz, Daniel. “Pleasure.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by M. Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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    A survey of theories of aesthetic pleasure from Early Modern European philosophy to the present.

  • Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Taste.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 3d ed. Edited by B. Gaut and D. M. Lopes, 193–202. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    Discusses a variety of theories of aesthetic evaluation based on the enjoyment that an object affords to a person of good taste, thematizing the gustatory metaphor.

  • Lopes, Dominic McIver. “To Seize upon the Applause of the Heart.” In Being for Beauty. By Dominic McIver Lopes, 53–70. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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    Though embedded within a book that argues against AH, this chapter is a sympathetic standalone overview of AH.

  • Shelley, James. “Empiricism: Hutcheson and Hume.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 3d ed. Edited by B. Gaut and D. M. Lopes, 37–49. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    Historical introduction to views in British empiricism that ground aesthetic value in the experience that objects evoke.

  • Stecker, Robert. “Value in Art.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by J. Levinson, 307–324. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    General introduction to questions of value in art, including an excellent discussion of theories based on aesthetic experience, more generally, and those based on pleasure.

  • Zangwill, Nick. “Aesthetic Judgment.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

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    Discusses judgments of beauty and other aesthetic qualities, discussing in particular the centrality of pleasure and of reactions to it.

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