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October 2003



Jerrold Levinson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 821 pp.


In a text written on the occasion of the death of Nelson Goodman (1906 –1998),  Peter Kivy[1]notes  that up to the 1960s, aesthetics was considered to be a non-subject in philosophical research, at least in the area of English-language analytical philosophy. According to Kivy, this negative stance was reversed overnight upon the publication of Languages of Art by Goodman in 1968.Today, aesthetics constitutes not only a well-respected but also a dynamically cultivated branch of analytical philosophy as witnessed by the growing relevant bibliography.  [2]  It is characteristic of the tradition which has been created in analytical aesthetics  (a much more recent one than its continental counterpart) that the term aesthetics appears without the defining adjective “analytical”, thus giving the impression that the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics cannot refer but to aesthetics in its Anglo-Saxon analytical version.


The history of the term and the relationship of analytical aesthetics to its continental origins are presented by Paul Guyer, one of the most important contemporary  researchers of Kant ( Chapter I, 2: “History of Modern Asthetics”).  [3]  Guyer critically surveys the relevant bibliography, criticizes some writers as “Eurocentrists”  others for extreme dedication  to the 18th-century British tradition. He concludes that a balanced and documented history of contemporary aesthetics is yet to be written. The “Bibliographic essay”, an annotated bibliography with which he enhances his contribution to the volume, is very valuable indeed.


Equally significant and from the same point of view, is the “Introduction” by Jerrold Levinson, the editor of this volume (“Philosophical Aesthetics: An Overview”).  Levinson introduces the basic themes which are in fact the subject matter of specific chapters in the volume and distinguishes three “foci” of Aesthetics: Art, Aesthetic Property and Aesthetic Experience. Some of the issues emphasized by Levinson form the objects of analysis in the first major thematic unit (titled “General Issues in Aesthetics), out of the three sections in which the volume is divided.  The  other two sections are concerned with “Aesthetic Issues of Specific Art Forms” such as Music, Painting, Literature, Architecture, Sculpture, Dance, Theater, Poetry, Photography and Motion Pictures.  In the third section titled “Further Directions in Aesthetics,”  alternative approaches to Aesthetics are examined (such as ”Feminist Aesthetics” , “Environmental Aesthetics” , “Aesthetics of Popular Art” , as well as its  relationship to other scientific areas (such as “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology”; Aesthetics and Cognitive Science” etc.). Levinson offers an excellent  overview of the situation in aesthetics up to this point, but does not accommodate the reader’s need to become familiar with the concrete texts of the volume that follow his “Introduction”.


I will conclude this brief presentation with a special reference to the chapter on music in  the second section (489-515). Being aware of Levinson’s excellent work in the field of musical aesthetics,  [4]  I find really impressing the absence of his name, as well as this of Roger Scruton (the latter does not appear anywhere in the volume), and that of Lydia Goehr, who, nevertheless, is the author of the Chapter on “Art and Politics”.  Davies chooses to say little about a lot. His text includes 17 subchapters, the length of which varies greatly and not for always obvious reasons (for example, why should  the subchapter 8 on “Musical Notations”  be shorter than chapter No. 7:  “Live Performances and Recordings”? By the same token, within the distribution of subjects,  the reason is no more apparent for a separate study of  the  “Musical Depth” (subsection 15), the predicament of which belongs fully to the chapter on  “Musical Expression.”  (subchapter  11). In total, Davies’s text suffers from extreme dependency on certain sources (esp. Kivy and  Levinson)  and lacks philosophical originality, even in the parts intended  to be a more personal contribution, as e.g., the subchapter “Ontologies of Musical Works (subchapter 6) ,  [5]  thus jeopardizing the usefulness of his text as an introductory text for the undergraduate student (this due to the large number of topics handled). Thus the chapter on music flounders between an  informative, handbook-like and an original research-like discourse, and does not compare well with the other texts of this – otherwise - precious omnibus on the contemporary analytical approach to philosophical aesthetics.  



Panos Vlagopoulos

[1]  “How to Forge A Musical Work”, στο: Peter Kivy, New Essays on Musical Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001): 218 – 226.

[2]  See, e.g., the following reference works: B. Gaut & D. Lopes, Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London: Routledge, 2001); G. Dickie, Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), dictionaries: D. Cooper, ed., A Companion to Aesthetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), and readers: R. Kearney & D. Rasmussen, Continental Aesthetics. Romanticism to Postmodernism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); P. Maynard & S. Feagin, Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[3]  See, e.g., his Kant and the Claims of Taste (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1997).

[4]  See his Music, Art, and Metaphysics: Essays in Metaphysical Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990). For a presentation and critique of Levinson’s ideas on the ontology of the musical work see L. Goehr, The Imaginary Musem of Musical Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1992), esp. chapter “A Platonist Theory of Musical Works” (44 – 68).

[5]  He also signs the chapter on “Ontologies of Music” in the same volume.

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