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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 32-39



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Aesthetics, Epistemics, and Feminist Theory

Jane Duran


Recent feminist analysts of aesthetics and analytic aesthetics in particular seem to have come to the conclusion that the redemption of formulated aesthetic theory from the feminist point of view is a difficult and recondite task. 1 If analytic aesthetics now looks problematic, qua fruitful philosophical enterprise, its future appears bleaker still when the intersection of the androcentric nature of analytic philosophy and the larger feminist project, frequently articulated in other than analytic terms, is examined.

In this essay I will assume that there is some future for analytic aesthetics, and I will not dispute the basic assumption that any portion of analytic theory is somewhat immiscible with feminist points of view. My concern, rather, will be to try to show what it is specifically in the nature of analytic theory, both aesthetic and otherwise, which renders it of dubious value to the feminist critique (at least on first blush). Although in the past feminist theorists have tried to characterize the androcentric nature of analytic philosophy on the whole in rather striking terms,it is not clear that these terms have been precise enough. 2 Further, it is not clear that analytic modes are obviously unusable for feminist theory or for the development of a still nascent feminist aesthetics, although what one wants to say here is that this task is a terribly danger-fraught one. 3

My goal here is twofold: first, to articulate what precisely it is aboutanalytic aesthetics (or any portion of analytic theory, for that matter) thatmakes it a hindrance — at least preliminarily — to the development of feminist views. In order to do this I will need to examine a relatively uncharted area in the literature, that is the parallel between much of analytic aesthetic theory and analytic epistemology. The second portion of my task will runsomewhat contrary to conventional wisdom: having delineated the mostmasculinist parts of analytic endeavors, I inquire if there is, indeed, anypart of rigorously articulated analytic theory that could lend itself to the development of a feminist aesthetic. [End Page 32]

Analytic Philosophy and Aesthetics

Analytic aesthetics, like analytic philosophy taken as a whole, has often proceeded as if the development of conceptual clarification and theoretical rigor could do much to "solve" or dissolve aesthetic problems. George Dickie's introductory work, for example, presents the student with a number of difficult areas in aesthetics, and then proceeds to address these areas in much the same manner that other contemporary texts employ for the discussion of issues in ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics.

In discussing symbolism, Dickie first attempts to clarify the use of theterm, and then notes that there are problematic areas with regard to whether or not a work of art can both contain a symbol and serve itself as a symbol simultaneously.

A symbol "stands for" in some establishable way that which it symbolizes. A symbol serves to transfer someone's thought to something other than itself, and the transfer is not a random association. The transfer depends upon certain features of the symbol which give it a place in a certain meaning system. 4

I cite this material as exemplary because the flavor of analytic aesthetics is remarkably similar to the flavor of analytic philosophy as a whole. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that the techniques of analysis developed in the earlier part of this century relied on breakthroughs in logic and formal representation which allowed for a certain precision in matching symbol to thing signified. The original hope of philosophers working at the time of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore had been to develop something close to a logically perfect language with a one-to-one relationship between signifier and signified. However without merit this somewhat arcane task, its goals infused much of the philosophizing that followed it, and even the ordinary language school was, of course, indirectly an offshoot of this work. Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, notes that "analytic philosophy was to be 'scientific philosophy'....The goal of the analytic philosopher...

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