A Simple Outline Of Philosophical Understandings Of Aesthetics

Anecdotally, for those of us (all of us) who have contended with lockdown-limited activities over the past year and a half, the value of creative activities is undeniable. From poetry to painting pots, we’ve all found ourselves taking solace in some kind of artistic endeavour, so we thought we’d shine a light on a few philosophical theories exploring the value of art.

The philosophical study of art is known as aesthetics, a term which has since been corrupted by excessive and inaccurate use across Pinterest and other platforms (by us, among others…sorry). In this article though, the word aesthetics refers to the branch of philosophy concerned with art and creativity.


Plato on art

Presenting any kind of philosophical analysis without mentioning Plato’s stance would be negligent, but translations of Plato’s approach to the topic of aesthetics vary. While both Plato and Socrates are understood to have shared a reverence for great art, Plato is also credited with a more controversial opinion: that art is an inaccurate and dangerous imitation of the truth. Plato’s reverence for truthful representation stemmed from his theory of the forms, through which he asserted that what we can perceive to be reality is akin to a shadow: a mere representation of the truth. This led Plato to condemn art forms such as painting and poetry, as he understood them to be inaccurate representations of reality, and through this reasoning, worthless. The word “reason” is integral to many of Plato’s theories, and understanding Plato’s reverence for rationality adds legitimacy to his perspective on aesthetics while simultaneously undermining it. Plato’s assertion that any inaccurate representation of reality is unimportant is congruent with his personal understanding of human flourishing (which involves acting according to rational reasoning), but ignores the ineffable joy that can be derived from art. In fact, his entire theory has been undermined by some philosophers (including Aristotle, Plotinus, Sidney and Hegel) who maintain that art can supply a more accurate representation of reality than what is reflected in the everyday world.


Aristotle on art

Through his Poetics, Aristotle asserts that art serves the function of offering catharsis. While debate exists around what Aristotle specifically referred to by catharsis, the term is generally understood to refer to “the process of releasing strong emotions through a particular activity or experience, such as writing or theatre, in a way that helps you to understand those emotions”. Aristotle maintained that through art we can explore and experience certain emotions which are necessary for balance, and in doing so can achieve “purgation” of negative emotions

Aristotle’s position on art ties in to his understanding of how humans can achieve “eudaimonia”, which roughly translates to mean a state of human flourishing. Aristotle’s understanding of “eudaimonia” presents a framework similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Essentially, to flourish as a human we should be satisfied on a number of social, physical and psychological levels, and the human need for self actualisation requires some degree of creative expression


Kant on art

Another interesting theory on the value of creative endeavours is that put forward by Kant. In his Critique Of The Power of Judgement, Kant asserts that the universal concept of beauty shared by humans is an example of judgement which is free from self interest. Creating and appreciating art is one way in which we can harness an unselfish perspective, which Kant saw as integral to living ethically. Kant used the example of the sublime to explain how an appreciation of beauty is free from ego and self interest, since the “sublime” may not incur benefits for us, but is something we value nevertheless. Kant’s beliefs about the value of art were tied into his concept of morality: how humans can live an ethical and morally virtuous life without the moral guidelines laid down by organised religion. Kant asserted that engagement with ideas (such as art), free from self interest, allows us to better develop our moral capacities.


Contemporary beliefs about the benefits of art

Since Aristotle and Kant’s work connecting engagement with creative activities to human flourishing, contemporary philosophers, social scientists and psychologists have asserted similar theories based on observation, analysis and empirical research. In his book Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton echoes the sentiments of Mathew Arnold, John Ruskin and Theodore Zeldin: that art can be used to fill the void left by religion. This reflects the position put forward by both Kant and, later, Edmund Burke; that art, like religion, allows us to observe the “sublime” and in doing so, encourages us to reconsider our own personal worries and fears.

Another contemporary take on the psychological benefit of art pertains to “self-actualisation” as put forward by Maslow in his Hierarchy Of Needs theory. Maslow asserted that, along with the generally accepted human need for food, rest and security, humans have an innate need to engage in activities which allow them to express themselves to their full potential. Similarly, twentieth century philosopher Kendall Walton asserts that engagement with art allows us to experience quasi-emotions, and as such, are better prepared to address these emotions when they arise in our own lives.  This kind of art, that allows us to better understand and engage with our own lives, is fittingly labelled by the philosopher RG Collingwood as “magic art”.

While Plato’s epistemological standpoint dismissed the value of creative endeavours, more relativistic beliefs assert that value can be derived from representations and creations regardless of their proven veracity. 


If you’re inspired to get creative, we’ll be publishing a round-up of Aussie brands making ethical art equipment this time next week. In the meantime, we’d suggest getting stuck into a beautiful, Australian made puzzle via our friends at Bel & Co At Home.

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