I'm an aspiring composer and painter, and I think it's really interesting how artists and philosophers have worked towards understanding art. My first question is whether or not aesthetics is approachable for someone who is not steeped in philosophical writ. My second question is whether anyone can recommend a solid introduction to aesthetics.

2 Answers 2


Before digging into philosophical questions about aesthetics in general, it may be worth investigating what philosophically inclined artists and critics have to say. I'd suggest Ruskins Modern Painters which argues for the transition from the 'picturesque' to 'truth to nature'; and John Bergers Ways of seeing for unearthing or discovering (Gramiscian) 'ideology' in the arts - a kind of visual anthropology.

It might be worth looking at Benjamins The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction - apposite in todays world of overproduction of imagery and there loosening from traditional moorings. Susans Sontags On photography is useful in framing the (Foucaldian) discourse of 'truth' that is represented by the photo or cinema verite (one appears if one is actually there); of the course the substance of her argument is much more readily apparent in a world easy of photoshopping.

Of all these John Bergers book is probably the best introductory secondary source - it was used once as a university set text.

You didn't mention poetry, but this is the subject of one of Aristotles essays On Poetry where he discusses the aesthetic effect of poetry - lyric, satiric & dramatic; despite its antique provenance its fairly straightforward, and easier than Benjamins essay which takes some investment in the 'philosophical writ' of the Frankfurt school.

  • Reading these books will give me a solid grounding you think? Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 14:09
  • @Sketchyfish You could do worse than the resources indicated here for an introduction. Once you're feeling a bit more confident, you might try Ranciere's Emancipated Spectator, Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics or Adorno's Aesthetic Theory
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 14:16
  • You might also consider reading artists themselves as well: Picasso and Klee both write very ably about their theories of art, for instance
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 14:49
  • @sketchyfish: well, its depends on how far you want to go and in which direction - for all I know you might want to paint like Rembrandt, in which case none of the above really holds; Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 1:17

I would start with the IEP article on aesthetics, following the various links to philosophers mentioned in there (reproduced below).

  • Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. 2 Vols. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Augustine. Of True Religion. Translated by J. H. S. Burleigh. Chicago:Henry Regnery Company, 1968.
  • Baird, Forrest E. and Walter Kaufmann. Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Hofstadter, Albert and Richard Kuhns, ed. Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. The University of Chicago Press, 1964 (This book was primarily used for its selections from Augustine).
  • Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
  • Plotinus. The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Burdett: Larson Publications, 1992.
  • Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
  • Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae (ST). Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981.
  • Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG). 5 Volumes. University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

For a non-Western perspective, Peter Adamson has an episode of his History of Philosophy podcast dedicated to the philosophy of Medieval Islamic Music.

  • Are there any secondary sources that you would recommend? Maybe books that speak on aesthetics in general? Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 4:16

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