Cover image for Aesthetic Reason: Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos By Alan Singer

Aesthetic Reason

Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos

Alan Singer


$41.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02458-5

312 pages
6" × 9"
5 b&w illustrations

Literature and Philosophy

Aesthetic Reason

Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos

Alan Singer

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.”


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In recent years the category of the aesthetic has been judged inadequate to the tasks of literary criticism. It has been attacked for promoting class-based ideologies of distinction, for cultivating political apathy, and for indulging irrational sensuous decadence. Aesthetic Reason reexamines the history of aesthetic theorizing that has led to this critical alienation from works of art and proposes an alternative view. The book is a defense of the relevance and usefulness of the aesthetic as a cognitive resource of human experience. It challenges the contemporary critical tendency to treat aesthetic value as separate from the realms of human agency and sociopolitical change.

The argument unfolds through a review of the cognitivist traditions in post-Enlightenment aesthetic theory and through Singer’s own articulation of a model of ethical subjectivity that is derived from the Greek concept of akrasia, which recognizes the intrinsic fallibility of human action. His focus on akratic subjectivity is aimed at revealing how the artwork has the potential to enhance human development by cultivating habits of self-transformation. Along these lines, he shows that the aesthetic has affinities with the logic of reversal/recognition in Greek tragedy and with theories of subject formation based on intersubjective recognition. The marking of these affinities sets up a discussion of how the aesthetic can serve protocols of rational choice-making. Within this perspective, aesthetic practice is revealed to be a meaningful social enterprise rather than an effete refuge from the conflicts of social existence.

The theoretical scope of the book encompasses arguments by Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Lyotard, Bourdieu, Derrida, Althusser, and Nancy. Singer’s exposition of "akratic subjectivity" is advanced through readings of literary texts by Sophocles, Melville, Beckett, Joyce, and Faulkner as well as visual texts by Caravaggio, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter.

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.”

Alan Singer is Professor of English at Temple University.


List of Illustrations



1. The Adequacy of the Aesthetic

2. Aesthetic Community: Recognition as an Other Sense of Sensus Communis

3. Acting in the Space of Appearance: Incontinent Will and the Pathos of Aesthetic Representation

4. Beautiful Errors: Aesthetics and the Art of Contextualization

5. Aesthetic Corrigibility: Bartleby and the Character of the Aesthetic

6. From Tragedy to Deliberative Heroics

7. Living in Aesthetic Community: Art and the Bonds of Productive Agency





In this book I make a defense of the category of the aesthetic as a cognitive resource for literary study. The anti-aesthetic rhetoric that permeates much contemporary literary debate charges that the aesthetic either invites irrational sensuous indulgence or embodies elitist class-biased standards of taste, which are ideologically complicit with instrumental reason. The aesthetic is thereby judged inadequate to the tasks of social agency and ideology critique. Such conclusions have produced a curious disengagement of literary theory from literary art. They epitomize an unwillingness to own up to the aesthetic value of the literary artwork. By contrast, in this volume, I demonstrate the relevance of the aesthetic to practical rationality and, by extension, to the social context within which literary art is produced.

Working out of Aristotelian ethics, the epistemological and formal features of classical tragedy, and Alexander Baumgarten’s seminal attempt to theorize a cognitive aesthetic in the early eighteenth century, I strive to reconcile post-Kantian aesthetics with the more worldly goals of contemporary literary theory. But this reconciliation will be made coherent with a comprehensive account of literary production. Treating the aesthetic chiefly as a presentation of sensuous particulars that compels a reconfiguration of conceptual wholes, I argue that the aesthetic has affinities with the logic of reversal/recognition in Greek tragedy, with contemporary thinking about human agency and with ethical theories of subject formation based on intersubjective recognition. These affinities suggest how the aesthetic might serve protocols of rational choice-making and ethical subjectivity that legitimate aesthetic practice as a meaningful social enterprise rather than as a guilty refuge from the conflicts of social existence.

The past twenty years of literary study have witnessed a subtle disarticulation of theories of literary art from the category of the aesthetic. As a result the aesthetic has not only ceased to be a bridge between the literary text and the philosophical grounds on which notions of literary form (at least since Aristotle) have been erected, but it has also become the object of a concerted attack by cultural materialists, deconstructionists, neo-Marxists, new historicists, and popular culturalists. Works such as Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic, Tony Bennett’s Outside Literature, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, and Hal Foster’s anthology, The Anti-Aesthetic, are indicative of the current presumption that the aesthetic, in its complicity with class-based ideologies of distinction, its political disinterestedness; and its irrationalist, sensuous decadence, can no longer serve the socially responsible purposes of literary study. The aesthetic, thus caricatured as a nefarious tool of Enlightenment dogmatism, is judged to be woefully inadequate to the most urgent tasks of literary criticism. Literary judgment is now seen to be intertwined with imperatives of political agency and social justice that are, in turn, intended to remedy the ills of post-Enlightenment culture.

For these reasons, my defense of the aesthetic is based on a realignment of our understanding of the aesthetic with Enlightenment rationality. I seek to redefine the conflicts between post-Enlightenment subjectivity and aesthetic experience. In this way I want to show how aesthetic theory is surprisingly well suited to the project of carrying through the project of Enlightenment without succumbing to the authoritarian excesses of the Enlightenment ego. In this purview we can envision an ethical legitimacy in aesthetic interests that cannot easily be dismissed by the political agendas of poststructuralist literary theory. Even more pointedly, we will envision an aesthetic interest that, because it is intimately connected to the wellsprings of subjective agency, might further political agendas in more convincingly political ways.

Specifically, I will seek to engage the cognitive resources ascribed to aesthetic value by Alexander Baumgarten in the seminal works Reflections on Poetry (1711) and Aesthetica (1750). The nineteenth-century drift of aesthetic theory in the direction of affectively based intuition and conceptually indeterminate judgments invites us to forget that Baumgarten originally gave currency to the term aesthetic by positing the parity of artistic production with methods of rationalist understanding. Paradoxically, Baumgarten’s assumption that the aesthetic is compatible with rationalist principles was quickly challenged by Enlightenment philosophy on the grounds that it lacked cognitive rigor. Consequently the category of the aesthetic, christened by Baumgarten, gained currency under the sway of later Enlightenment culture in the noncognitive guise of the Kantian judgment of taste. Aesthetic theory pursued increasingly nonconceptual rationalizations of aesthetic perfection in works by Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Byssche Shelley, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, Clive Bell, and Monroe Beardsley. For all these theorists, the aesthetic courted autonomy at the cost of community.

It is not surprising, then, that noncognitive aesthetics, gaining prestige under the auspices of Enlightenment reason, paradoxically became increasingly independent of, if not alienated from, rational agency. Nevertheless, it came to be identified, in another paradoxical turn of fate, with the increasingly oppressive authority of Enlightenment reason. The late twentieth-century critique of Enlightenment reason consequently found aesthetic theory to be complicit in the reifying, instrumentalizing vices of Reason, despite the legacy of eighteenth-century Reason’s contempt for aesthetic irrationality. As a result, we should not be surprised that the aesthetic is currently vilified for being both too affectively based, too irrational, and too ideologically invested in the instrumentalizing ends of rationalist ideology.

I want to reconsider the cognitivist roots of modern aesthetic theory in order to salvage it from the cognitive dissonances of these contradictory claims. It will therefore not be presumptuous of me to propose that this work might provide a basis for speculating how the category of the aesthetic serves to comprehend the role of the literary in relation to the problems of subjective agency, ideology critique, and ethical community. I believe that the premise for this claim is strengthened in observing that the cognitivist aims of Baumgarten’s aesthetic are strikingly coherent with an older Greek tradition of equating aesthetic judgment (in Aristotelian phronesis, and in the peripeteia of Greek tragedy) with protocols of human deliberation and rational action. These, in turn, are strikingly concordant with Schiller’s ideal of an aesthetic state. In Schiller’s model of the aesthetic state, artistic practice and social community are reciprocating projects, preempting the dualisms of art and life that now flourish in the rhetoric of the anti-aesthetic schools of contemporary criticism. Following the spirit of the Schillerian initiative, then, Aesthetic Reason posits a continuity between aesthetic value and rational value that inheres not so much in the ends but in the means of rational self-reflection and ethical action.

As I have already said, much of the contemporary suspicion of the aesthetic seems to be based on the proposition that the formalist bias of aesthetic value is utterly incommensurable with the political activisms with which so many contemporary literary-critical schools are affiliated. But I want to suggest that it is precisely because aesthetic value is deemed to be too deeply complicit with the Enlightenment prejudices in favor of dogmatic subjectivity, that we risk a more damaging blindness. We lose sight of the fact that the political agendas of contemporary criticism require the very capacities of subjective agency that Enlightenment rationalism originally imputed to aesthetic judgment, at least in the work of Baumgarten. In this book, therefore, I will propose that only by restoring the aesthetic as a resource of rational deliberation, and hence a proving ground for undeluded human agency, can the purposes of its most vociferous critics be meaningfully served. It may prove feasible to speculate how the elaboration of aesthetic theory in postmodern culture is the unexpectedly necessary tool of postmodern culture’s critique of modernity.

Stated differently, I propose a rerationalization of aesthetic practice and value that holds faith with the Enlightenment goals of rational action, without succumbing to the ideological traps of reifying reason. It buttresses a venerable Frankfurt School conviction that Enlightenment must be transformed, not abandoned. Because I seek to reintegrate aesthetic value with the joint projects of literary production and literary criticism—at a time when literary criticism is becoming increasingly alienated from the realms of art—my argument intimates how Enlightenment ideals are predisposed to aesthetic practices. If I can promote some reconciliation between literary criticism and literary art my work may serve as a reminder of how complicit the modes of aesthetic valuation are with the forms of cultural production at large.

The structure of this work proceeds alternately through speculative argumentation and close readings of artworks. These include both literary and visual texts. In addition to literary works by Sophocles, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, and James Joyce, I explore the formal-compositional complexities of Caravaggio, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter. My desire to read beyond the bounds of orthodox literary aesthetic value is coherent with my wish to assert the premise that literary production is epiphenomenal of cultural production in other modalities of subjective human expression. The realm of the visual arts is a fully complementary field of production in which subjectivity, the locus of tragic experience and Enlightenment hope, pursues self-realization. I will try to persuade the reader that on both the verbal and the visual registers the stakes of subjectivity are the same, at least insofar as we see the mandate of self-recognition to be the imperative of engagement with the work of art.


In Chapter 1, I establish a context for these claims. The prospect for assessing the adequacy of the aesthetic is presented as a historical view of what we have arguably lost by eschewing the cognitive imperatives of aesthetic valuation. This is the legacy of Neoplatonism, Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and, I will argue, even Kantian aesthetics. This view is balanced by a prospect of what might be gained by countenancing cognitive protocols of human choice-making as the threshold of aesthetic experience: an alternative legacy out of Baumgarten, Johann Gottfried von Herder, G. W. F. Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Theodor Adorno.

In Chapter 2, I locate the situation of human choice-making within the context of a civic identity with its roots in the agonistic arena of the Greek polis. Hannah Arendt, among others, has extrapolated this civic identity to the Kantian aesthetic project of sensus communis. Inasmuch as Arendt’s own sense of what establishes this trajectory of thought (about the relations of art and politics) is epitomized in the forms of Greek tragic knowledge, I establish tragedy as a frame of reference for advancing a cognitive aesthetic.

The argument is furthered in Chapter 3 through a focus on the epistemological dilemma of tragic character—the agonia of tragedy—in terms of the reversal of human will portended in incontinent action. This dilemma is what the ancient Greeks, and an important branch of contemporary ethical philosophy, engage as akratic character, where an agent seems to lose rapport with the best reasons for actions. Akratic character serves as a framework for contemplating the stakes of tragic reversal. In turn, through a close reading of Beckett’s late narrative Ill Seen, Ill Said—which I take as a paradigmatic tragedy—I will attempt to demonstrate that the intelligibility of tragic experience presupposes not the annihilation of subjectivity but rather the disposition of subjectivity toward a self-revising consciousness. The integrity of this consciousness derives from an Aristotelian lineage—namely, the practical agency extolled in the Nichomachean Ethics.

In Chapter 4, I propose that the suffering of tragic character with respect to akratic action be joined with a broader consideration of the relation of aesthetic experience to the dynamics of error. The problematic of error in turn becomes a way of joining the self-revising subjectivity conditioned by tragic experience to aesthetic experience. This is accomplished through the rationalistic practices of contextual understanding. Here, discussions of Frederic Jameson, Louis Althusser, Hegel, and Jean-Luc Nancy serve to situate choice-making subjectivity with respect to a long-standing critical ambition to compensate human agency for the limitations of the contexts of knowledge in which action must be undertaken. The "tragic suffering" featured within the context of akratic action is here clearly identified as a quality of readerly attention distinct from the fatality of the tragic protagonist, but is nonetheless coherent with the choice-making imperatives that dignify tragic death. In this case, the "text" that dramatizes such readerly attention is Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saint Paul.

Chapter 5 contains a more explicit consideration of how the problematics of Enlightenment subjectivity must be seen to stand in a reciprocal relation with the formal densities of aesthetic experience. Or at least this is the case if we want to salvage a notion of the ethicopolitical usefulness of aesthetic value. My reading of Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener" is presented as a counterpoint to the paradoxically anti-aesthetic aesthetic stances—epitomized for the purposes of this argument by Guillory and Bourdieu—that trivialize the stakes of aesthetic experience in the gesture of valorizing it. Guillory and Bourdieu seek an admirable reckoning of the artwork with ethicopolitical practices that unfortunately necessitates a nullification of the artistic experience qua aesthetic form. I rely upon the reading of Melville’s "Bartleby" to advance the notion that the critique of Enlightenment subjectivity can be achieved only from within the precincts of the subject, and that our analytical grasp of this constraint is crucially mediated by the forms of engagement with aesthetic objects—in this case, the forms of readerly response conditioned by the verbal specificity of Melville’s text.

In Chapter 6, I model in more detail the deliberative métier of the aesthetic character limned in previous chapters. Here I elaborate my original attempt to reconcile the aesthetic and the political on the epistemological topoi of tragic experience. Reacting against Nancy’s claim to reconcile aesthetics and politics by abandoning the determinants of human agency in favor of the indeterminacy of sublime intuition, I articulate more fully the deliberative means of aesthetic character. I employ a close reading of Joyce’s "The Dead" to think more practically about how works of art instantiate the kind of deliberative "space" that I posit both as a ground of aesthetic character and of the determinateness of aesthetic value. The value of aesthetic experience is thus defended in the elaboration of the warrant for choice-making that art imposes upon the subject. Again the "tragedy" of subjectivity—here dramatized in the character of Gabriel Conroy—is linked to a prospect for ameliorating human experience through deliberative action.

In Chapter 7, I conclude the argument by juxtaposing the ethicopolitical claims championed by anti-aesthetic criticism with the art practices patronized by those claims. I argue that these works of oppositional postmodernism (by Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman) strive to evade aesthetic bad faith, the lapse into unworldly aestheticism, by eschewing the presentational values of aesthetic form. My point here is to tease out the inadequacy of such works with respect to the cognitive stakes inherent in the political justifications for their existence. Alternatively I reassert the necessity to tap cognitive resources of the aesthetic that depend upon the presentational densities of aesthetic forms and thereby to hold the attentive subject to a discipline of choice-making. It is this discipline that keeps faith with the project of Enlightenment mind and the "tragic" burdens of self-recognition and rationalistic self-justification that Enlightenment mind cannot dispense with.

Ultimately my purpose in these pages is to found a reasonable faith in the aesthetic as a métier of human activity. This métier is grounded in the cultural knowledge of tragedy, where individuality contends with the recognition of human contingency. As I note in the final chapter, the aesthetic deepens reflection upon the question of how art is a resource for the kinds of agency we acknowledge in the recognition of contingency. More to the point, I believe that partisans of the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic both agree that such self-knowledge must meet a test of adequacy. But the standard of adequacy here has nothing to do with judgments of canonicity or hierarchies of taste. Neither does it bear upon the relative truthfulness of the work of art vis-à-vis the scientific facts of nature or the political facts of human history as told from the vantage points of power or powerlessness. Rather, the adequacy of the aesthetic defended in these pages relates most eloquently to the sociopolitical pressures that human subjects contend with in the common deliberative prospect of sharing a common world.

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