Aesthetic judgment

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003)
Beauty is an important part of our lives. Ugliness too. It is no surprise then that philosophers since antiquity have been interested in our experiences of and judgments about beauty and ugliness. They have tried to understand the nature of these experiences and judgments, and they have also wanted to know whether these experiences and judgments were legitimate. Both these projects took a sharpened form in the twentieth century, when this part of our lives came under a sustained attack in both European and American intellectual circles. Much of the discourse about beauty since the Eighteenth century had deployed a notion of the ‘aesthetic’, and so that notion in particular came in for criticism. This disdain for the aesthetic may have roots in a broader cultural Puritanism, which fears the connection between the aesthetic and pleasure. Even to suggest, in the recent climate, that an artwork might be good because it is pleasurable, as opposed to cognitively, morally or politically beneficial, is to court derision. The twentieth century has not been kind to the notions of beauty or the aesthetic. Nevertheless, some thinkers — philosophers, as well as others in the study of particular arts — have persisted in thinking about beauty and the aesthetic in a traditional way. In the first part of this essay, I look at the particular rich account of judgments of beauty given to us by Immanuel Kant. The notion of a ‘judgment of taste’ is central to Kant's account and also to virtually everyone working in traditional aesthetics; so I begin by examining Kant's characterisation of the judgment of taste. In the second part, I look at the issues that twentieth century thinkers have raised. I end by drawing on Kant's accout of the judgement of taste to consider whether the notion of the aesthetic is viable.
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