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Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.



Two decades after the first edition of this book a substantial postscript is clearly needed: to balance the somewhat one-sided emphasis that has become more evident with the passage of time; to provide some account of important developments in the philosophy of art since 1958; and to give warning of the widely varied criticisms of my arguments and conclusions that have been made in recent years, so that the reader may hear other sides and make individual judgments on controversial issues.

As to the first of these points: although at the time I was writing the first edition I had in mind the perennial struggle in aesthetics between those who insist on the special character and privileges of the arts and those who assign them subordinate social and cultural roles, in the context in which I wrote I felt strongly the need to explore and emphasize the case for the independence and autonomy of the arts. I gave less attention (though at the end, in Chapter 12, I gave some) to the interconnections between artistic activities and other forms of activity, between artworks as social products and other basic interests and concerns, and between artworks and the social, biographical, and historical conditions under which they appear. At that stage of its development, aesthetic theory seemed to me to call for a serious attempt to see what could reasonably be said for the special character of art, for art criticism as a distinct task relying less than many supposed on psychology and sociology, and for a unique kind of value to be found most fully in artworks -- a value independent of their moral, political, philosophical, or religious aspects. The best-known and most widely studied attempt to dignify the arts in this way -- that of the so-called "Formalists" such as Clive Bell and Roger Fry -- seemed to me, on the whole, to have done more harm than good to the cause, although of course their criticism was historically very important and their aesthetic ideas generated constructive discussion. The Semiotic Theory of art -- then in its Susanne Langer and Charles Morris phase -- seemed promising to many, but (even if its theoretical difficulties could be worked out) it seemed to me a limited and poorly supported view of art. Marxist thinking about the arts, especially that available in English, was largely in its primitive Stalinist stage and quite indifferent to what I thought of as extremely important aspects of art. In the flourishing school of New Criticism I found, on the other hand, serious efforts to recognize literature as something special and important in its own way, to understand how literature works, and to develop an objective and (within limits) testable method for explicating literary works. I did not think of myself as subscribing to various religious and political views which were important to some New Critics, and I didn't see that these views had any logical bearing on what they were doing as critics and as literary theorists. But I did think that their rather minimal theory was in need of philosophical supplementation and support, and the one-sidedness -- perhaps even lop-sidedness -- of the book resulted from a sustained effort to do justice to music and visual art as well as literature. I regretted that I could not, in those years, gain adequate knowledge of other arts -- film, architecture, dance -- so that I could deal with them as fully, but I believed that literature, music, and painting would serve to illustrate and test my concepts and principles, and I had to be content with that.

The past twenty-two years have been, to my mind, an admirably creative period for philosophical aesthetics, and the work now being done is more lively and rigorous than that we were doing in 1958. Several key books and essays, and the numerous responses they have elicited, deserve much of the credit for this progress. Some older issues have been recast in much more interesting and manageable forms, with the help of ideas developed in other branches of philosophy. But even these issues, and a fortiori others that have not yet been subjected to such extensive reconsideration, have important aspects (reasonable views, useful distinctions, substantial arguments) that were djscussed in 1958 and must still be reckoned with. I have selected ten topics for brief review; they are severally important and currently very live and they collectively provide, in my judgment, a good picture of recent work in aesthetics.

  1. The Definition of Art
  2. The Ontology of Art
  3. Aesthetic Qualities
  4. Meaning and Metaphor
  5. Representation
  6. Expression
  7. Fiction
  8. Literary Interpretation
  9. Reasons and Judgments
  10. Aesthetic Value