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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 39.1 (2005) 105-118

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Sibley's Legacy

Philosophy Department
Auburn University
Approach To Aesthetics, by Frank Sibley. John Benson, Betty Redfern, and Jerome Roxbee Cox, editors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001, 280 pp., $45.00 hardcover.
Aesthetic Concepts: Essays After Sibley, edited by Emily Brady and Jerrold Levinson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001, 239 pp., $49.95 hardcover.

Unquestionably, Frank Sibley should be counted among those who helped return aesthetics to intellectual health and respectability as a proper field for philosophical investigation. He published no monographs outlining his views, but managed nonetheless to make highly influential contributions to research in aesthetics through a small number of papers. The two books under review in a sense are long overdue. Sibley died in 1996, before he could assemble a collection of his papers for publication in a single volume. Approach to Aesthetics is perhaps the next best thing — a collection of essays assembled and shaped by a highly conscientious editorial team. The book collects all of Sibley's published writings in aesthetics, together with a number of unpublished papers in various states of completion. The editors were confronted with the difficult question of what to do with many of these latter pieces. In the end, they made the unhappy but correct decision to leave out some work, which would have been of great interest but was still embryonic at the time of Sibley's death. But while we may not have in this volume the fullness of Sibley's mature thinking on aesthetics, the importance of its contribution to the literature is in no way diminished. Clarendon has published Aesthetic Concepts: Essays After Sibley as a companion to the collection of Sibley's work. It, too, is a valuable contribution, and evidence of Sibley's agenda-setting influence on subsequent work in aesthetics. First I shall explore some of the main themes of Sibley's thought in Approach to Aesthetics.

Approach to Aesthetics

"Aesthetic Concepts" leads off the collection. Sibley concentrates on two sorts of remarks we make in talking about art: those that "may be made by...anyone with normal eyes, ears, and intelligence," and those that require "the exercise of taste, perceptiveness, or sensitivity, of aesthetic discrimination or appreciation" (p. 1). Concepts in the second group are aesthetic [End Page 105] or taste concepts. Sibley notices that in support of aesthetic judgments, we often (but not always) adduce reasons which involve non-aesthetic concepts only. The question to ask, then, is just what is the relation between the two? Sibley remains deliberately uncommitted on the specific nature of the relation, except for the important claim that whatever it is, it is not condition-governed. That is, "there are no non-aesthetic features which serve in any circumstances as logically sufficient conditions for applying aesthetic terms" (p. 4). The claim is strict, and in the tradition which says that nothing can substitute for individual, spontaneous contact with an artwork to judge its aesthetic qualities; no application of principles will suffice. On the one hand, such a position makes aesthetic education quite an important task, if the distinctive qualities of artworks are out of reach even to those who are cognitively and perceptually well-equipped. And yet, if no rules or general standards can be brought to the experience of art, one might well wonder just how such an education is to be carried out. Sibley is aware of this tension. The solution lies first in realizing that the aesthetic terminology is not different in kind from "everyday" language. Even if in the art-related cases, some of those are deployed in metaphors, our understanding of their use here is deeply related to their ordinary uses. But then, what stops any one of us from seeing that a painting is imbalanced or lurid? Sibley describes the several ways in which the critic "gets his audience to see what he sees" (p. 18). These include pointing out salient non-aesthetic features, using the aesthetic terms themselves, making use of metaphors, contrasts, comparisons, and so on. In effect, the critic's...


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