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Aesthetic judgements and the emotions


To: Nathifa G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aesthetic judgements and the emotions
Date: 23 November 2007 13:17

Dear Nathifa,

Thank you for your email of 14 November, with our notes towards an essay for the Associate Award on aesthetic judgements and the emotions.

I agree with you that this looks more like the structure for a thesis on aesthetics, or even a text book.

I think what you need here is a 'stalking horse'. If you have not come across this expression before, the original meaning is a horse which a hunter walks behind, so that his/her quarry is not aware that the hunter is there.

In application to a philosophical discussion, it would be a particular author whose views raise the kinds of issues that you especially want to discuss.

Hume looks like an excellent choice, not only because he has a very well articulated aesthetic theory, but also because he addressed specifically the question of how we can enjoy, e.g. by a tragic play, or in general an artistic depiction which in real life would cause us distress. (See his short essay 'Of Tragedy' 1757 which I have attached as a PDF file, obtained from Note that the text is a 'doctored' version in up-to-date English done by the philosopher Jonathan Bennett. This was the first thing to come up when I did an internet search.).

Colin Radford once wrote an article on this theme, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?', and it also forms the topic of ch 3. of the text used by University of London Philosophy External students, 'Reading Philosophy' edited by Guttenplan, Hornsby and Janaway. I've attached a more recent discussion by Colin Radford, as a PDF file.

That's one topic would be sufficient for an essay.

Another topic which you have raised is the question of the relation between aesthetic criticism and morals. Is it correct to hold (as e.g. Roger Scruton has argued, e.g. in 'Art and the Imagination') that, ultimately, all aesthetic criticism has a moral dimension on the grounds that we are evaluating the intentions of the artist; a work can exhibit insincerity, inauthenticity, cowardice, sentimentality, tastelessness, lack of originality -- all arguably dimensions of moral assessment.

Your appendix on 'representations of power' is a topic I haven't come across before. This too would be a very fine topic for an essay. I have no idea what you would read for this.

On the other hand, an attempt to survey all the ways in which aesthetic judgement might relate to the emotions would be impossible to contain within the bounds of an essay. You have to select a topic which gives you the opportunity to show that you know how to argue a case, and that you are capable of thinking for yourself and are not just an able expositor of the theories of others.

All the best,