Beardsley, Monroe (1915–1985)

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Monroe C. Beardsley published in several areas of philosophy but is best known as an aesthetician. He is arguably the most important figure of twentieth-century analytic aesthetics. His Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958) was a watershed book, furnishing an organization aesthetics had lacked. Beardsley's careful discussions of almost all of the field's questions provided an aesthetic education for his and succeeding generations.

Two ideas shaped all Beardsley's work: his view of the philosophy of art criticism (called "metacriticism") and his aestheticism. Metacriticism's task is the analysis of art criticism's central concepts. Aestheticism is the view that aesthetic characteristics (e.g., unity, delicacy) alone are the proper objects of art criticism; thus, aesthetic features become the sole focus of criticism and the basis for artistic value. Beardsley acknowledged that artwork can have nonaesthetic, referential characteristics, and he does not deny that these features are important. He does, however, deny that referential features are relevant to aesthetic experience and, thus, to artistic value.

Aesthetics begins with the metacritical task of discussing objects of criticism, designating them "aesthetic objects"; a hard-and-fast connection is, thus, forged at the book's beginning between metacriticism and aestheticism with the contents of the objects of criticism identified as aesthetic features. This identification sets the stage for Beardsley's view of artistic value. He claims that artworks are instrumentally valuable because their aesthetic characteristics can produce (valuable) aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, as he conceives of it, is the foundational notion of Beardsley's book.

John Dewey is the primary source of Beardsley's notion of aesthetic experience. Dewey conceived of aesthetic experience as an experience that coheres to such an extent that it is set off, although not detached, from the flow of experience. Beardsley, however, was also influenced by aesthetic-attitude theorists. Consequently, unlike Dewey, he claimed aesthetic experience is detached from ordinary experience. But whereas the aesthetic-attitude theorists claim various mental mechanismssuch as "psychical distancing"detach aesthetic experience from ordinary life, Beardsley maintained that aesthetic experience's internal coherence detaches it from the flow of experience. And it is the detachedness of aesthetic experience that blocks artworks' referential characteristics (names, descriptions, portrayals, etc.) from referring to anything outside of ongoing aesthetic experience of artworks. On his view, only aesthetic, nonreferential characteristics of an artwork can cause aesthetic experience and, thereby, be the focus of artistic criticism and the basis for artistic value.

Beardsley argued that artistic value is an instrumental value (an objective value) because it can cause valuable aesthetic experience. To provide an objective basis for the value of aesthetic experience, Beardsley contended that aesthetic experience is in turn instrumentally valuable, being productive of human welfare. As an aspect of his account of artistic value, Beardsley argued that there are principles of art criticism involving the potential of three aesthetic features (unity, intensity, and complexity) for producing aesthetic experience, thus, opposing the conventional wisdom that there are no such principles. Present-day accounts of critical principles have their beginnings in Beardsley's work.

Throughout his career Beardsley continued to defend aestheticism and the inherent detachment of the aesthetic from ordinary life. In 1978 he argued against Nelson Goodman's view that artworks' referential features produce artistic value. In the second edition of Aesthetics, Beardsley wrote, "I think distance or detachmentwithdrawal from practical engagementin some form is a factor in aesthetic character" (1981, p. lxii).

The only major question not discussed in Aesthetics is the nature of art. Finally in 1979, responding to the art theories that developed in the wake of Arthur Danto's "The Artworld" (1964), Beardsley sketched a theory of art in the midst of discussing aesthetic value; he wrote, " an artwork can be usefully defined as an intentional arrangement of conditions for affording experiences with marked aesthetic character" (1979, p. 729). Beardsley's theory of art was determined by his aestheticism.

In 1946 Beardsley and William Wimsatt had co-authored "The Intentional Fallacy" and initiated a polarizing debate by arguing that artists' intentions are irrelevant to the interpretation and evaluation of their artworks. Beardsley also defended anti-intentionalism in Aesthetics, "The Authority of the Text" in The Possibility of Criticism (1970), and "Intentions and Interpretations: A Fallacy Revived" in The Aesthetic Point of View (1982). On his anti-intentionalist account, artworks are severed from their creators' actions when they are objects of criticism and of aesthetic experience. According to both his anti-intentionalism and his aestheticism, artworks as objects of aesthetic experience and criticism are detachedon the one hand, from their creators and, on the other, from their referents. Thus, in an aesthetic experience, audiences and critics savor only the aesthetic features of artworks.

Anti-intentionalism has been debated on grounds other than those used in Aesthetics, making use of arguments from the philosophy of language. Beardsley himself participated in this later controversy and produced additional arguments against intentionalism in "The Authority of the Text" and in "Intentions and Interpretations: A Fallacy Revived." In the first article, he argued that three different kinds of texts created without any authorial intent have specific meanings, namely, some randomly generated computer texts, some poetic lines with a word that has come to have a different meaning than it had at the time it was composed, and texts that reveal meanings of which their authors were unconscious. Unfortunately, Beardsley's argument merely contradicts the intentionalists' claim that such texts cannot have meaning and, therefore, will not persuade them.

In the second article, Beardsley applies J. L. Austin's distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts to fictional discourse, claiming that illocutionary acts in fiction are representations of illocutionary acts and thus not actual illocutionary action of the text's author. Unfortunately, this argument is limited to fiction and the dispute is about texts generally, not just fiction. Furthermore, the dispute is really about locutionary meaning rather than illuctionary meaning.

The controversy over intentionalism continues.

See also Aesthetics, History of.


works by monroe beardsley

Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958). Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

"The Authority of the Text." In The Possibility of Criticism, 1637. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970.

"In Defense of Aesthetic Value." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 52 (1979): 723749.

"Intentions and Interpretations: Fallacy Revived." In The Aesthetic Point of View, edited by Michael C. Wreen and Donald M. Callen, 188207. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

works about monroe beardsley

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch, 1934.

Dickie, George, and W. Kent Wilson. "The Intentional Fallacy: Defending Beardsley." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53 (1995): 233250.

George Dickie (2005)

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Beardsley, Monroe (1915–1985)

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