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date: 15 July 2019

(p. v) Preface

(p. v) Preface

The aim of this Handbook is to present the state of the art in philosophical aesthetics as it is practised in the English-speaking world. Handbook in hand, a reader with a general philosophical background should be in a position to follow and, if so inclined, enter into debates on questions in aesthetics as they are currently being conducted in books, journals, and conferences across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and other centres of anglophone thought.1

The Handbook includes forty-six systematic chapters on virtually all the major issues in philosophical aesthetics that are active topics of discussion and research. In addition to these systematic chapters on specific topics, there are two chapters, at the beginning of the Handbook, which serve as a kind of introduction to the subject as a whole. One is a general overview of the field of philosophical aesthetics, in two parts: the first is a quick sketch of the lay of the land, and the second an account of the development of five central problems over the past fifty years. The other chapter is an extensive survey of recent work in the history of modern aesthetics, or aesthetic thought from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

The systematic contributions are of three kinds, and constitute the bulk of the Handbook. Part I comprises chapters dealing with general problems in aesthetics, such as expression, fiction, or aesthetic experience, considered apart from any particular artform. The second part contains chapters on problems in aesthetics as they arise in connection with particular artforms, such as music, film, or dance. Chapters in Part III address relations between aesthetics and other fields of inquiry, or explore viewpoints and concerns complementary to those prominent in mainstream analytic aesthetics.

The relatively large number of contributions in the Handbook is justified by the diversity, complexity, and vigour of the field of aesthetics as it currently exists. If aesthetics fifty years ago was something of a backwater in philosophy, it is no longer, and the interactions in both directions between aesthetics and other branches of philosophy—in particular, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and political philosophy—only continue to grow.

The chapters in the Handbook vary in size, from about 4,500 words for chapters of fairly narrow scope (e.g. ‘Metaphor’, ‘Environmental Aesthetics’) to about 12,000 words for those of broader scope (e.g. ‘Music’, ‘Definition of Art’), with an average length of about 8,500 words.2 In addition, all chapters include ample and up-to-date bibliographies.3

The orientation of the Handbook is clearly Anglo-American, with the methodology of analytic philosophy largely, though not everywhere, in evidence. That said, contributors have been encouraged to acknowledge and, where appropriate, comment on perspectives on the problem under discussion deriving from other philosophical and critical traditions. Though most contributors are based in the USA or the UK, some are based in Canada, Scandinavia, and Australasia.

Handbook authors are all well-known aestheticians, visible in the field and credible on the topics being surveyed through having contributed importantly to existing debate on them. Assignment of specific subjects to specific contributors was made on the basis not only of contributors' authoritativeness on and appropriateness to a given topic, but also on their earlier efforts for related ventures, some attempt having been made to avoid the duplicating of chapters written for other reference works.

A distinctive feature of the Handbook is that a number of contributors are responsible for two chapters rather than the more usual one. The result is arguably more unity of style and coverage, and a closer interrelating of the concerns of certain pairs of chapters. At the end of every chapter is a list of cross-references to other chapters in the Handbook treating of related matters.

The Handbook is explicitly targeted at scholars in aesthetics, that is graduate students, professors, and researchers in departments of philosophy. However, the Handbook should also prove useful to serious critics, theorists, and historians of the arts concerned to keep abreast of current directions in philosophical aesthetics, as well as to the philosophically informed general reader with a theoretical interest in the arts.

A few words are in order on how the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics distinguishes itself from two recent and recommendable reference works of roughly similar aim. The Handbook differs from the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London 2001) in at least three respects. First, the contributions that follow are geared, for the most (p. vii) part, to graduate rather than undergraduate students; second, the chapters are significantly longer, and contain more extensive bibliographies; third, there are more systematic contributions in the Handbook, made possible by the decision to forgo chapters on individual historical figures or movements. The Handbook also distinguishes itself from the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (New York, 1998) in being a one-volume rather than a four-volume affair, and in virtue of its more uniformly analytic orientation and more exclusively philosophical focus.

It has naturally not proved possible, for reasons of space, to include in the Handbook chapters on quite all the topics of interest in contemporary aesthetics, for instance, taste, genius, criticism, formalism, and so on. However, readers will find that a number of these nominally missing topics are in fact discussed, at least in passing, in one or more of the chapters in the Handbook. The following should serve as a guide to some of these hidden topics:

(p. viii) Many thanks to Peter Momtchiloff at Oxford University Press for having entrusted me with this Handbook, for his editorial advice and assistance during the four or so years from inception to completion, and for his confidence in my ability to bring the project to fruition. Thanks to Andrew Kania for his excellent work on the index. Finally, sincere thanks to the thirty-seven authors whose contributions to the Handbook essentially make it what it is: a guide to the best research in philosophical aesthetics for the foreseeable future.


College Park, Maryland

February 2002


(1) This is not to deny the existence of work in a similar vein in certain non-anglophone countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, and Germany; but in general what is done under the rubric of ‘aesthetics’ in those places is of a rather different nature.

(2) The Handbook, it will be noted, rather unusually contains two chapters devoted to the issue of aesthetic realism. This is because one of the two, originally commissioned under a different rubric, turned out ultimately to be about aesthetic realism as well. However, given the importance and complexity of the issue—whether there are aesthetic properties, whether aesthetic judgements have truth values, whether aesthetic descriptions are objective—the duplication is not to be regretted, especially as the two articles end up on different sides of the issue, with Aesthetic Realism 1 ultimately embracing aesthetic realism, and Aesthetic Realism 2 ultimately rejecting it.

(3) The bibliographies are, however, almost entirely restricted to items in English, notice being taken of only a few items in other languages.