Aesthetic Reason vs. the Anti-Aesthetic

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Book Reviews Aesthetic Reason vs. the Anti-Aesthetic Alan Singer. Aesthetic Reason: Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. viii + 302 pp. $55.00 AESTHETIC REASON is an impressive and challenging work in many ways, the most significant of which is the solid case it builds up for cognitive aesthetics against the currently fashionable anti-aesthetic, which has problematically linked itself with the postmodernist concern for sociopolitical change and human agency. The complex argument presented by the author is most impressive in its theoretical scope, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Derrida, Lyotard, and Jameson. But this is not a historical survey: the philosophical sources enlisted by Singer are brought in as the building blocks of an original aesthetic theory and a new model of ethical subjectivity, derived from the Greek concept of akrasia, which, I believe, makes a very significant contribution to current cultural and philosophical debates about the ethical significance of art. Still more impressively, Singer's speculative argumentation alternates with close and finely nuanced readings of artworks, both literary and visual, which instantiate the theoretical points and offer material support for the model of aesthetic discussion he builds up. On this front, too, the scope of cultural resources is truly astounding, as the text moves confidently in the realm of literature from Sophocles to Melville, Faulkner , Joyce and Beckett, and in the realm of the visual arts from Caravaggio to postmodernist artists like Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Gerhard Richter. In recent years, the "aesthetic"—a blanket term for an often unexamined mixture of attributes—has been a favourite bogeyman for postmodernist art theories which tend to conflate it with nineteenth -century aestheticism and denounce it as an invitation of irrational sensuous indulgence, an embodiment of elitist class-biased standards of tastes, and an ideologically complicit instrument of Enlightenment reason. This is most visible, perhaps, in the field of literary studies, where the aesthetic (as practiced by the "New Critics" of the 206 BOOK REVIEWS 1930s, for example) has become the object of concerted attacks by cultural materialists, Neo-Marxists, Deconstructionists, and Popular Culturalists who maintain that due to its ostensible political disinterestedness and complicity with class-based ideologies of distinction, it can no longer serve socially responsible purposes of literary study. Literary judgment is now seen (or at least presents itself) as intertwined with the imperatives of political agency and social justice that are, in turn, intended to remedy the ills of post-Enlightenment culture. In view of these prevailing orthodoxies, the task undertaken by Singer is no less than monumental: he sets out to redefine the artistic text, whether literary or visual, as "a presentation of sensuous particulars that compels a reconfiguration of conceptual wholes," to defend the category of the aesthetic as a cognitive resource, and to demonstrate its relevance to practical rationality and, by extension, to the social context within which art is produced. Singer, who espouses the Frankfurt School conviction that "Enlightenment must be transformed, not abandoned," begins his project of recovery in the eighteenth century with the work of Alexander Baumgarten, before aesthetics took the Romantic turn towards intuitionism, irrationality and the sublime, before it "courted autonomy at the cost of community." The aesthetic theory expounded by Baumgarten is, Singer argues, in striking sympathy with the Greek tradition (evident in Aristotelian phronesis and in the peripateia of Greek tragedy) of equating aesthetic judgment with protocols of human deliberation and rational action. Going back to the context of civic identity which has its roots in the agonistic arena of the Greek polis, Singer enlists Hannah Arendt's extrapolation of this civic identity to the Kantian aesthetic project of sensus communis, and establishes Greek tragedy as a frame of reference for advancing a cognitive aesthetic.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)206-209
Number of pages4
JournalEnglish Literature in Transition, 1880-1920
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2005

Bibliographical note

Reviews the book "Aesthetic Reason: Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos," by Alan Singer.


  • AESTHETIC Reason: Artworks & the Deliberative Ethos (Book)
  • SINGER, Alan


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