Francis Sparshott, University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, is a commanding figure in aesthetics, having written—to name only some of his books—The Structure of Aesthetics, The Concept of Criticism, The Theory of the Arts and more recently two volumes on the philosophy of dance. The Future of Aesthetics is based on his 1996 Ryle Lectures delivered at Trent University, Canada. Sparshott was Ryle’s student at Oxford, and has dedicated the book to Ryle’s memory. Still, Sparshott is quite aware of just how inimical aesthetics was, not only to Oxford during his own education there, but also to Ryle himself. The three-fold project of philosophical aesthetics—the combined inquiry into the question of beauty, the logic of criticism, and the study of the fine arts—is of abiding interest to Sparshott, himself a poet. Ryle, by contrast, objected to aesthetics. As Sparshott recollects, “like many Oxford philosophers, he really knew (or would admit to knowing) nothing at all about aesthetics.” Ryle’s “affectation of philistinism, Sparshott says, was so extreme that “he refused in [End Page 236] later life to admit that he had ever crossed the threshold of Malloney’s Art Gallery, despite . . . reassurances that the establishment in question was a bar . . . and entirely unsullied by art of any kind” (p. 101). For Sparshott as for many of us, it is an unresolved puzzle that “a Ryle could despise what a Plato or a Kant had vexed their brains with” (p. 7).
While maintaining the format and mode of address of a public lecture, The Future of Aesthetics is very much a philosophical meditation. We are told the book “is intended . . . to be illustrative of what needs to be borne in mind” (p. xi)—and so it is. It is multi-faceted and richly textured. And there is no mistaking the voice of the text: making what might seem outrageous claims from time to time in order to take their measure, or offering mythic reconstructions to help us track such things as the historical development of the university as an institution. The main part of the book consists of four chapters of the lectures themselves, and to these Sparshott has added an afterword and, as any reader of Sparshott would hope for, his signature set of extended endnotes.
The inquiry into the future of aesthetics begins, sensibly enough, by an examination of its history. Aesthetics must face its dual origin. It was proposed as an independent branch of philosophy by Baumgarten in 1735 although, as Sparshott observes, “guardians of the sacred Baumgartenian flame are rare these days.” Yet the origins of the three-fold inquiry can be traced to Plato. And talk of Plato immediately places the question of aesthetics within the context of Western civilization and its particular form of higher education, represented by the university. What Sparshott meditates on in these lectures is just how to understand the place of aesthetics within philosophy, the place of philosophy within the university, and the place of the university within civilization. These are large issues.
To begin, it is noteworthy that philosophy—at least in the twentieth century in the analytical tradition—has a problem with aesthetics. Why? Not only because the discussion of beauty is still linked, as Plato well knew, to the question of passion and to decisions about value. Nor even because of a greater sense of prestige accorded to, for example, logic, philosophy of mind and language, and the philosophy of the sciences. There is as well the sheer exuberant diversity of works produced across the various arts, a wealth that stubbornly resists reduction to shared general principles. This diversity may have inspired many philosophers, including Arthur C. Danto, Richard Wollheim, and Sparshott himself, but the marginalization of aesthetics within philosophy is still everywhere apparent. Given this, perhaps aesthetics should be rescued from primary control by philosophers. After all, those in literary studies, communications, and other disciplines have much to say about beauty, criticism, and the arts. For instance, Michael Kelly, editor of Oxford’s recently published four...