32 Aesthetics – Overview and Coursework

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of art and beauty and the character of our experience of them. Understanding beauty and art is an expansive area of study, with theories and opinions spanning the history of Western philosophy, from ancient Greece to the present day. A philosopher with special interest in aesthetics is referred to as an “aesthetician.” In aesthetics, judgements are made about “beauty” — an ideal, or value, like “truth” or “goodness.” So aesthetics, like ethics, is a normative pursuit. In considering the nature of beauty, aesthetics intersects with metaphysics; and questions asked about how we know and recognize beauty are epistemological. In this introductory study of aesthetics, we will sample some of the dominant theories on: the nature of beauty and art, the character of the aesthetic experience, and aesthetic judgement in art criticism.


Successful completion of our study of this unit will enable you to:

  1. Describe and contrast subjectivism and objectivism in theories of beauty.
  2. Understand and compare fundamental theories for the definition of art.
  3. Explain theories on the nature of aesthetic experience, including the concept of disinterested interest.
  4. Describe judgement theories for art criticism including those involving functionalism and emotionalism.


The Course Content for this unit provides the primary reading material, links to any additional assigned reading or viewing resources, and assigned coursework. The unit concludes with a test. Material is presented in these subsections:

8.1 What Is Beauty, What Is Art?
8.2 Aesthetic Experience and Judgement

Dates for completing all assigned work are in the Schedule of Work.

Philosophers We Will Meet

In our investigation and readings for Aesthetics, we will encounter the work of these philosophers. You may select a name here to link to a short biography, or you may link to the same information at your first encounter the philosopher’s name in the Course Content sections:

Plato (427-347 BCE)
Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
David Hume (1711-1776)
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Denis Dutton (1944-2010)
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Key Terms

It is important to understand the meaning and use of these terms.

Aesthetic Attitude:A disinterested attitude. (See “disinterested attitude.”)
Aesthetic Experience: A particularly satisfying or pleasurable experience of a work of art that accompanies a disinterested attitude.
Cluster Theory of Art: Similar to family resemblance, the view that there is a non-specific set of characteristics that may apply to the concept of artwork.
Disinterested Attitude: Perceiving a work of art in its own right, with no purposeful intent, idle curiosity, or bias from personal experience and emotion.
Emotionalism (aesthetic): The view that art must effectively arouse feelings or understanding in the perceiver.
Family Resemblance Concept (art): The view that there is no single common property among art objects. Works of art have only overlapping similarities.
Formalism (aesthetic): The view that art is defined in terms of its compositional elements.
Functionalism (aesthetic): The view that art serves a practical purpose.
Objectivism (aesthetic): The view that beauty is an intrinsic feature of a piece of art or natural phenomenon.
Representationalism (art): The view that art is a representation, or imitation, of something else that is real.
Subjectivism (aesthetic): The view that beauty occurs in the mind of the subject who perceives it.


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