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David Novitz SPARSHOTT AND THE FASHIONS OF PHILOSOPHY Wordsworth has written his last poem. Gritting his teeth, he writes another poem. —Francis Sparshott, "Stations of Loss" Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy but it has not always been regarded as a sturdy, fruit-bearing branch. When, as a graduate student, I arrived at Oxford in the late sixties, I discovered that my chosen field, if a branch of philosophy at all, was generally considered a lifeless twig. Aesthetics seemed then to be viewed as the maiden aunt of British philosophy: quaint, well-mannered, but dreary, muddled, passionless, and perfectly barren. In my defense of it, I suffered the indignity of having A. J. Ayer stare across the top of his spectacles in order to tell me so. Not just he, but all the doyens of philosophy at Oxford seemed then (as of now) to exude an antipathy for the subject. Even so, I hoped somehow to find a suitable mentor: a daring mind who would willingly confront the shared antagonisms of the eighty professional philosophers employed at my new university. If I expected to meet such a mentor in person, I was soon disappointed . Aesthetics at Oxford in 1969 was confined to a seminar on Wittgenstein's Lectures onAesthetics held in Michaelmas Term in a suitably airless chamber at AU Souls. It was a strange affair where many seemed more interested in being puzzled in a manner reminiscent ofthe agonies of the later Wittgenstein than they were in the problems of art and beauty. The mentor whom I did eventually find, and who helped enormously to set me on course, had left his ideas inscribed in a volume that I found in a small section on aesthetics in the Merton Street library. It was Francis Sparshott's TL· Structure ofAestìietics. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 263-278 264Philosophy and Literature The relief that this book engendered in me at the time is described only with difficulty. In part, it offered a sense of direction: it laid bare in detail and through painstaking research the main areas that were properly the concern ofaesthetics and the relations in which they stood to one another. It also offered a defense of the subject and set forth a bold and reassuring argument for the importance of aesthetics in a climate that was at best unsympathetic to the entire enterprise. Not only did it deal decisively withJohn Passmore's contentions about the dreariness of our subject, and with claims about its muddleheadedness , its impossibility, and lack of "order," but it answered Stuart Hampshire's more worrisome argument that aesthetics filled no theoretical gap—that it was entirely gratuitous and so had no proper place in philosophical inquiry. According to Sparshott, if we accept the traditional division of human activities into thinking, doing and making—and it seems a reasonable enough division—aesthetics seems to arise as naturally out of reflection on making as ethics out of reflection on doing.1 Consideration ofhuman beings as agents in ethics finds its counterpart, he suggested, in our consideration of human beings as makers or creators in aesthetics (SA, p. 23). These ideas and arguments struck home and convinced me utterly. So silly did the standard criticisms ofaesthetics now appear that I ceased almost at once to pay them any serious attention. More's the pity, for having been so well served by Sparshott's defense of aesthetics, I simply took it for granted and never thought to teach it to my own students. There is a lesson here, but it will have to wait. The Structure ofAestìwtics explained with immaculate clarity and scholarly accuracy the then branches and organization of the discipline of aesthetics, the concerns of the enterprise and the ways in which they could be seen to relate to each other. There was no sustained attempt to solve any ofthe traditional (or nontraditional) problems of aesthetics. Rather, and in a way that was entirely appropriate for the time, it performed the preliminary task of mapping the terrain. This enabled floundering students like myself to locate their own interests within the discipline, to understand the theoretical lineage and hence the significance of these interests, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 263-278
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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