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Foundations of the Philosophy of the Arts

Series Editor: Philip Alperson, Temple University

The Foundations of the Philosophy of the Arts series is designed to provide a comprehensive but flexible series of concise texts addressing both fundamental general questions about art as well as questions about the several arts (literature, film, music, painting, etc.) and the various kinds and dimensions of artistic practice.

A consistent approach across the series provides a crisp, contemporary introduction to the main topics in each area of the arts, written in a clear and accessible style that provides a responsible, comprehensive, and informative account of the relevant issues, reflecting classic and recent work in the field. Books in the series are written by a truly distinguished roster of philosophers with international renown.

  1. The Philosophy of Art      Stephen Davies
  2. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures      Noël Carroll
  3. The Philosophy of Literature      Peter Lamarque
  4. Philosophy of the Performing Arts      David Davies
  5. The Philosophy of Art, Second Edition      Stephen Davies

The Philosophy of Art

Second Edition

Stephen Davies






List of Figures

All figures except 7.1 and 7.4 appear in the color plate section between pages 118 and 119

Figure 2.1 Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964.
Figure 2.2 Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964.
Figure 3.1 I Made Berata, Balinese picture, c. 1990.
Figure 3.2 Pieter Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1555.
Figure 3.3 Caravaggio, Deposition, 1602–4.
Figure 6.1 È la vita, designed by Bijan of Florence.
Figure 7.1 Two-Js face.
Figure 7.2 Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43.
Figure 7.3 Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café in Arles, 1888.
Figure 7.4 The Müller–Lyer Illusion.


Why Study the Philosophy of Art?

It is widely thought that the arts provide social and personal goods of the highest value. One measure of a society’s maturity, sensitivity, and sophistication is the quality of its greatest artists and, more generally, the extent to which its government and public support the arts. Meanwhile, a person who has no interest in any of the arts can be thought to be not fully rounded. On all but the most elitist construal of what art is, almost everyone draws on one or other form of art in ways that are significant to their sense of themselves and their perspective on others. Participation in and exposure to the arts contribute to the individual’s psychological, emotional, and moral development, along with their well-being.

Yet such claims about art’s importance can seem puzzling. The production and consumption of art does not directly enhance our survival. Indeed, much art stands conspicuously apart from ordinary, practical concerns. It lacks the immediate, functional value of science and technology. Besides, art usually offers its rewards more to the person who engages with it on its own terms for the sake of appreciating its individuality than to the person who treats it merely as a means to pre-specified, extrinsic goals.

And even if art is a source of knowledge and experience, it often provides such an indirect and complicated route to these that we should wonder what they have to do with its importance. Though we might accept that art contributes valuably to human self-realization and fulfillment, the kind of nourishment it supplies and how it delivers this are not immediately obvious.

These are not the only respects in which art is perplexing. It comes in a bewildering variety of kinds. Individual works often are interpreted in different, even conflicting, ways. Some art is difficult to comprehend and can be provocative or just plain weird. People differ in their tastes and judgments.

Despite all this, we expect a degree of uniformity and objectivity in aesthetic assessments. People are much more bothered if others fault their artistic preferences and evaluations than they would be if it were their liking for blue M&Ms, say, that is challenged. This suggests that, despite their wide-ranging diversity, aesthetic preferences are not expected always to be idiosyncratically personal.

The study of philosophy also is valuable. It refines important skills and techniques. For example, students learn how to analyze and evaluate arguments critically, fairly, and constructively. Also, they are trained to express their understandings of complex or abstract ideas in terms that are clear and precise.

The philosophy of art provides, as well as these general benefits, specific ones that come from addressing the puzzles mentioned above. We can enrich our insight into our practices and ourselves by reflecting on what appears odd or intriguing about them and by attempting to explain art’s significance to our lives. After all, the production and appreciation of art is among the most distinctive of the traits that make us uniquely human.

In thinking about art, here are some of the questions a philosopher might raise: When and why did art originate? What theories best illuminate why people make and consume art? What kinds of things are art and what makes them art? What is the purpose of interpreting art and what constraints, if any, govern its interpretation? What kinds of content and meaning do artworks possess? How do they express emotions? How does art represent what lies beyond its boundaries? Are artworks valuable because they convey insight about the world that can’t be easily obtained in other ways, or does their value lie in their separation from the demands of ordinary life? Is there a connection between aesthetic and moral value?

These and other questions will be considered in the following chapters.

Applications and Questions

The chapters of this book fall into two parts. The first, covered in chapters 1– 4, is largely theoretical. To bring things back to earth, we will close each of these chapters by discussing concrete applications of ideas they contain. The second part, chapters 5–8, deals with more practical (though still general) topics. The issue of how these arguments are to be applied arises inevitably in conjunction with their exposition, so we will consider relevant examples and treatments within the body of the chapter. All chapters close with questions intended to provoke consideration of how the ideas that are outlined might be extended or developed.

As well as presenting relevant theories, we will often consider possible vulnerabilities in the arguments for the positions discussed. But the criticisms are usually merely sketched. They stand in need of further development, along with considerations of the replies that might block them.

References and Readings

I avoid burdening the main text with citations of previously published material, which otherwise might overwhelm it. Some general references are invaluable and cover all the topics discussed in this book, and much else besides. Also, the material they contain is often more digestible than that found in scholarly journals and monographs. They should be the first resource consulted by any student. To avoid repetition, I list them now.

  1. Aesthetics: Critical Concepts in Philosophy, ed. J. O. Young, 4 vols. (London: Routledge, 2005).
  2. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition, ed. P. Lamarque and S. H. Olsen (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
  3. Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, ed. P. Kivy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
  4. A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. S. Davies, K. M. Higgins, R. Hopkins, R. Stecker and D. Cooper (2nd edn., Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
  5. Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. M. Kiernan (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).
  6. Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. M. Kelly, 6 vols. (2nd edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  7. Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, ed. J. Levinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  8. Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. B. Gaut and D. McIver Lopes (3rd edn., London: Routledge, 2013).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. N. Zalta at

An annotated selection of readings is appended to each chapter. Note that most of the works indicated are not intended by their authors for introductory students. Students who wish to follow up particular issues at a philosophically sophisticated and detailed level should consult these references.

Among the journals devoted specifically to aesthetics and the philosophy of art are British Journal of Aesthetics, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Journal of Aesthetic Education, and Philosophy and Literature. In the readings at the end of each chapter these will be abbreviate as BJA, JAAC, JAE, and PL.


I am grateful for the feedback I have received from students who have studied the philosophy of art with me, and for the comments of Philip Alperson, the series editor, John Brown, John Dilworth, Jonathan Farrell, Ted Gracyk, Jonathan McKeown-Green, Justine Kingsbury, Stephanie Ross, and Dabney Townsend. Jeff Dean and Danielle Descoteaux, of Blackwell Publishing and John Wiley & Sons, my project manager, Janet Moth, and anonymous reviewers provided invaluable advice, assistance, and criticism.