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The philosophy professor and writer Jerrold Levinson defines aesthetics as “the branch of philosophy devoted to conceptual and theoretical inquiry into art and aesthetic experience” (Levinson 2003, p. 3). What makes an experience an aesthetic one is a contentious matter, however, and is indeed one of the main subjects of the theoretical inquiry. Nonetheless, there is general agreement that people experience something aesthetically when, for example, they find it beautiful, elegant, or vulgar. Levinson’s definition, which is a fairly orthodox one, indicates that aesthetics developed out of different, though overlapping, concerns: for art, and for an allegedly distinctive type of human experience. The two are different because not only artworks, but also natural scenes and objects encountered in “everyday life” (coffee-machines, say), may be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, such as garishness or symmetry. In addition, not all philosophical questions about artworks are about their aesthetic properties (e.g., questions about the role of poets’ intentions in determining the meaning of poems). The two concerns overlap, however, because the identification of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities is often an important ingredient in its appreciation.
Levinson’s definition blends two early and different ways of using the term aesthetics. Derived from a Greek word for “sensation,” it was first introduced by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in 1735 as a name for “the science of how something … is sensitively cognized” (Baumgarten 1954, §16). The scope of the term was later restricted by Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgement (1790), to sensation-based judgements of taste or beauty. For Kant, aesthetics had nothing peculiarly to do with art. G. W. F. Hegel, however, doubted the possibility of a general “science” of beauty, and in his Lectures on Fine Art in the 1820s he equated the term with “the philosophy of fine art.”
Of course, although aesthetics was an eighteenth-century coinage, the discipline it refers to has an ancient pedigree. Plato and Aristotle, for example, addressed such paradigmatically aesthetic topics as beauty and the role of emotion in art.
Reflecting the divergent approaches of Kant and Hegel, later aestheticians have often been divided between those focused primarily on the philosophy of art and those concerned with understanding the character of aesthetic experience. Attention of the latter sort has tended to concentrate on an examination of Kant’s characterization of aesthetic experience as “disinterested,” as disengaged from cognitive and practical interests, and therefore sensitive solely to the appearances and forms of things.
Within philosophy, the status of aesthetics is disputed. For some it is a relatively discrete subdiscipline, while for others it is necessarily parasitic on the insights of other areas of philosophy, including metaphysics. Some thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, have held that its place is central, since aesthetic concepts such as style and elegance are involved in ethical reflection on the good life and even in philosophical reflection on scientific method. The relation of aesthetics to the social sciences is also disputed, but many philosophical questions about art and aesthetic experience are certainly closely related to socialscientific issues, and aestheticians often invoke the findings of social science. One such question is “What is art?” John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, for example, argued against “timeless” conceptions of art. They maintained that the modern concept of art is a nineteenth-century product that reflects the predilections of a dominant and leisured social class. A related theme was developed in Pierre Bourdieu’s “social critique” of such distinctions as that between aesthetic and less “pure” pleasures.
Several issues concerning aesthetic experience, especially that of beauty, also engage with cultural anthropological ones. Thus, there has been considerable debate about whether there are broadly universal standards of, say, women’s beauty, explicable perhaps in terms of evolutionary factors, or whether such standards are relatively “local” ones, explained instead as functions of cultural pressures exerted by advertisers and the fashion industry. While aestheticians both contribute to and draw upon such empirical debates, most of them also maintain that these debates involve conceptual and evaluative issues that it is not for empirical enquiry to settle, but that instead call for philosophical analysis.
- Baumgarten, Alexander. 1954. Reflections on Poetry. Trans. K. Aschenbrenner and W. Holther. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Cooper, David E., ed. 1992. A Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
- Levinson, Jerrold, ed. 2003. The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
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