Aesthetic Properties: Heterogenous, Historical and Hard to Explain

Wednesday, 22 February 2022, 16:00-18:00

Senate House, Room 243


Aesthetic properties are pervasive in our lives and come up often in our conversations, yet theoretical disagreement prevails over their nature, their variety, their epistemic and metaphysical standing. This paper argues that aesthetic properties are highly heterogenous and that at least some are historical. I examine some consequences.

Recent development of aesthetics of the environment and of the everyday – along with recent emphasis on taking a global perspective – suggest that aesthetic properties are much more heterogenous than previously recognized. Aesthetic properties belong to natural objects or scenes, to artworks in any medium, to artefacts as well as built environments across historical eras; and they draw a wide variety of responses such as our perceptions or emotions. Historicism about artworks carries over to at least some aesthetic properties: some aesthetic properties depend on facts of their broader historical context just as works do. I will argue that open-ended heterogeneity and historical specificity leave us without a way to draw a distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties. In any given particular case aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties may be distinguished. But a principled distinction has been standardly assumed in aesthetics since Frank Sibley’s landmark work in the 1960’s. If we lack principles that demarcate aesthetic from non-aesthetic properties, this affects how we can hope to explain aesthetic properties. I argue against supervenience theories that explain aesthetic properties in terms of their dependence on non-aesthetic properties. Rather, we need to explain aesthetic properties in ways that appeal to other aesthetic phenomena such as aesthetic value or aesthetic responses. The paper sketches several theories of aesthetic value to show how they can provide explanations of aesthetic properties.


Following NHS guidance, all attendees are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated (including boosters) against Covid-19, unless medically exempt. Face coverings are still encouraged, especially in classrooms. Our group is diverse; please continue to be considerate of those who wear face coverings and those who don’t. Thank you.