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Bullough, Edward (1880–1934)


Edward Bullough was a British aesthetician and literary scholar. He taught modern languages at Cambridge University, holding University lectureships in German and then Italia. He never held a philosophy fellowship or chair, but he gave the first lectures on aesthetics at Cambridge, beginning in 1907, and was widely read in aesthetics. He also conducted psychological research on aesthetic responses in collaboration with Cambridge psychologists.

Bullough is known in aesthetics primarily on the basis of a single article, "'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle," originally published in The British Journal of Psychology in 1912, in which he maintains that aesthetic experience depends on a distancing from "our practical, actual self," thereby "permitting only such reactions on our part as emphasise the 'objective' features of the experience." By means of such distance, we can escape what is merely idiosyncratic but still experience a "personal relation, often highly emotionally coloured," to the object, whether work of art or nature.

Bullough's proposal stands in the long tradition of theories of disinterestedness dating back to Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and of the "aesthetic attitude" dating back to Schopenhauer. Bullough's innovation in this tradition is to treat aesthetic distance as a factor in both the creation and reception of art (it is obviously not involved in the creation of nature), and as a variable in the sense that different degrees of distance are appropriate for different kinds of objects, artists, and audiences. The experience of a particular object could thus suffer from either underdistancing or overdistancing. Bullough's emphasis on the variability of distance was suggested at least in part by his experiments on different aesthetic responses to colors, reported in a series of articles from 1907 to 1910, and led him to emphasize the variability rather than uniformity of indidual tastes. In this regard he distanced himself from the traditional theory of disinterestedness.

The 1912 article does not, however, fully explain the value of distancing oneself from objects. For Bullough's fuller account of the "aesthetic consciousness" that can be produced by the proper degree of distance from an object and its value to us, one must turn to his lectures on aesthetics, which were posthumously published in 1957. Here, after a thorough review of the problems of previous approaches to aesthetics, Bullough argues that "the aesthetic attitude is neither scientific nor ethical neither explanatory nor final, but contemplative," giving "a plasticity and relief to objects and experiences which they inevitably lose" in ordinary scientific or practical contexts, an experience we obviously enjoy (Bullough 1957, p. 75). Here again Bullough stands in a long tradition, going back at least to Kant, but his view is distinguished by his emphasis on the availability of "aesthetic consciousness" in both quotidian and artistic contexts, and on its role in the creation and the reception of works of art. Bullough also stresses in a distinctive way in which "aesthetic consciousness" is a form of "objectivity," although it is distinct from both scientific objectivity and from the "egotistical subjectivity of practical consciousness."

Bullough's conceptions of aesthetic distance and aesthetic consciousness were harshly criticized by later analytical philosophers, such as George Dickie. But his use of these concepts to characterize a valued form of experience and to ground the possibility of a general "aesthetic culture" going beyond the specific realm of art save his reflections from the critique that these concepts cannot yield a satisfactory definition of art proper, which was not Bullough's goal.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetics, History of.


Bullough, Edward. Æsthetics: Lectures and Essays, edited with an introduction by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Dickie, George. "Psychical Distance: In a Fog at Sea." British Journal of Aesthetics 13 (1973): 1729.

Paul Guyer (2005)

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