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Arnold Berleant



I.  Introduction  [Expanding scope of aesthetics ] 

            It is common to think of aesthetics as a theory that accounts for the beauty or the pleasing quality of things.  This is not far from the mark.  When philosophers speak of aesthetics as a scholarly discipline, they usually associate it with the philosophy of art and the special value that the arts and nature possess.  Over the past several decades, however, the arts and aesthetic practices have continued the direction of the past century in expanding their domain still more rapidly.  The application of aesthetic values to environment is one instance of this expansion, and environmental aesthetics has emerged as an important part of the enlarged scope of aesthetics.  More recently, aesthetics has been applied to still other domains of experience, such as the aesthetics of everyday life, the aesthetics of food, the aesthetics of community, political aesthetics, and still others.  The understanding of environment itself has grown to include not only the scenic landscape but the urban landscape and the industrial landscape, including their negative aspects.  Moreover, the growing awareness of other cultures and their traditions of aesthetic satisfaction have forced our thinking to expand into still other dimensions.

            Expanding the scope of aesthetics raises challenging questions about the experience of appreciation.  Traditional accounts of aesthetic appreciation are inadequate to identify and illuminate the perceptual satisfactions that these new applications evoke.  But not only does an enlarged range of aesthetic appreciation recognize beauties beyond the arts.  It also must account for the range of aesthetic perception into the oneiric, the bizarre, and the terrible, while the social and political significance of aesthetic values has led to the recognition of a wide range of such values, not all of them positive.[1]

            These challenges to aesthetic understanding have made the task of scholars both more important and more obstinate.  For their concerns now include not only art and the beauty of nature but the full range of life experience, as well, and this has given aesthetics increased significance and has produced greater confusion.  What do these domains of experience have in common?  Is there something that all these modes of experience share in considering them aesthetic?  This is the challenging question for aesthetics in our time.

II.   The domains of aesthetics [Origin of aes. as a field of scholarship; Baumgarten]

            The key to understanding the aesthetic lies, I believe, in the etymology of that word.  The term ‘aesthetics’ is a transliteration of the Greek ‘aisthēsis,’ which means perception by the senses.  Alexander Baumgarten kept close to the original Greek meaning when, in the mid-eighteenth century, he first defined ‘aesthetics ‘as “the science of sensory knowledge directed toward beauty” and regarded art as “the perfection of sensory awareness.”[2]   While the meaning of aesthetics has since then become both vaguely generalized to signify something whose appearance is attractive and pleasing, its original philosophical meaning led to aesthetics becoming a technical discipline of philosophy with its imponderables of definition and ontology.  More pointedly is the question, what is sensible knowledge?  I shall return to this later.


            First, however, let us consider more deliberately the various domains of aesthetics.  As a philosophical discipline, aesthetics has centered around understanding beauty in art and in nature.  Whether aesthetics focuses on the one or the other varies with the time and place.  Of course, people appreciated artistically fashioned objects since the beginnings of human civilization.  The earliest surviving artifacts show evidence of workmanship and decoration that indicates deliberate care in fashioning utilitarian objects beyond functional necessity.[3]  Then there are the seemingly gratuitous petroglyphs and images that were inscribed prehistorically on stone outcroppings and the walls of caves in many locations, and ornamental objects and jewelry are typically found in prehistoric grave sites.  These indicate clearly that an aesthetic sensibility has been present from the beginnings of human social organization, if not among our pre-human ancestors.[4]

            In the history of Western civilization, speculation and theories about the arts occur early, too, beginning with the golden age of Greek civilization some twenty-five hundred years ago.  But it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that modern aesthetic theory began with Baumgarten’s treatise and at the end of that century received its most influential formulation with Kant’s Critique of Judgment.[5]  After two centuries of commentary, Kant’s views continue to dominate aesthetic query.  Let us recall in brief the main tenets of that understanding.  It affirms that our aesthetic judgment of an object is inevitably subjective and cannot even be subsumed under a concept because we cannot affirm the existence of the object, which would imply some access to objectivity and universality.  Thus aesthetic judgment is non-cognitive.  The problem then is to establish some connection between our subjective judgments of taste and the object.  Kant attempts this by removing any desire or other interest and emulating the disinterestedness that has made scientific knowledge possible in the effort to achieve the semblance of universality by means of a common sense (sensus communis).[6]  Some consider this a specious argument for universality and just as contrived as Descartes’ similar attempt to bridge the distance between subject and object by means of the pineal gland.

 [nature environment]                                                                                                                          Movement and change in aesthetic appreciation have occurred, nevertheless, in practice if  not in theory.  The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave increasing attention to natural beauty.  And while the twentieth century tended to refocus on works of art, recent decades have witnessed not only renewed appreciation of nature but the enlargement of that interest.  Environment is now understood more broadly to include the city and the built landscape more generally, as well as wild nature.  What is more, aestheticians have extended their scope to embrace the world of everyday experience.  In these domains, disinterested contemplation is unlikely and different ways of explaining aesthetic pleasure have been proposed.[7] 

            These developments in art and aesthetic appreciation have strained the theoretical unity of traditional aesthetics, which cannot easily accommodate these changes.  With over a century of innovation in the arts and the vast enlargement and complexity of appreciative experience, the customary rubrics of explanation have become increasingly inadequate and even irrelevant.  Indeed, the very conceptual frame of aesthetics has been challenged:  the meaning of art, the condition and character of appreciation, and the scope and place of aesthetic values.  Art and appreciation have been re-cast, and aesthetic theory must be renewed, as well, to accommodate them.  Let us consider how this may go.

III.  From objects to experience 

[sensibility:  general meaning  - origins of aesthetics in sense perception sensibilitysubjectivism]     

            It is not surprising that philosophical understanding underlies both traditional aesthetics and its alternatives.  Coincident with the emergence of modern aesthetics at the end of the eighteenth century was the establishment of the modern scientific world view.  Formulated by Descartes and implemented by Newton and the pantheon of scientific explorers who followed, the natural world was laid open first to mathematical and then to empirical investigation.  What facilitated this was the ability to study nature impersonally and objectively.  The objectification of nature became the key, and philosophical aesthetics carried out the Cartesian revolution by objectifying the objects of appreciation.  Art came to mean objects, works of art.  Nature, too, was turned into scenery viewed at a distance, favored by the popular Claude glass that turned landscapes into reflected, composed images on a mirror. 

            From the hindsight of the present, the succession of disruptive movements that occupied the world of art from the late nineteenth century to the present day can be regarded as a rejection of the convention in thinking of art as an object, a distinctive object.  The gradual and increasing emancipation from close representation led, in modern painting, to ways of giving pictorial form to  the perception of light, of movement, of mass, and of form, transforming them  from abstractions into perceptual experience.  In the visual arts, impressionism, cubism, futurism, and dada began a direction that turned the art object into an occasion for perceptual, sensible engagement.  This is not the only time that art has led theory.

            This changes aesthetics into a descriptive and not necessarily celebratory study of perceptual experience, for it must now accommodate a complete range of negative as well as positive values.  Nor is aesthetic theory confined to the fine arts and nature only:  an aesthetic dimension pervades the human world.  What emerges is the understanding that aesthetic appreciation is not an object-centered response that requires a psychological remove and a disinterested attitude.   Rather, it is a complex multi-sensory perceptual engagement by means of a cultivated sensibility.

 [experience – field, undifferentiated]                                                                                                      This broad vision of sensible experience must be expanded still further.  It must be seen as a field experience. [8]   Sensible experience is part of an existential context that includes the geological strata that underlie all activity, the modifications of the earth’s surface and the structures that result from human activities in fashioning the immediate conditions of living, the behaviors that promote sustenance and wellbeing, and the social relations and patterns that constitute the cultural activities of human living under the particular conditions of time and place.  The human organism is infused by the materials and forms of nourishment that are obtained and shaped through the techniques of food production and preparation that are available in the social and cultural setting in which people live, guided by the customs, language, concepts, belief structures, and particular meanings that are prevalent, and finally by the forms of sensibility that are customary.  Living, then, is a perceptually selective, discriminating process in which everyone receives and contributes.  It is a condition of continuities within which we make distinctions, separations, and divisions based on need, customary practices, and tradition. The perceptual factors of this field reflect the full range of sensation and sensible awareness as it is filtered and discriminated in participatory activities.  We inhabit, then, a field of sensate activity that rests on sensation but as sensible perception infused by and related to all the conditions that affect and qualify human experience.  This essay undertakes to identify and begin to explore aesthetic sensibility.

IV.  Sensibility

            The historical and theoretical development I have outlined culminates in the insight that aesthetics is, at its base, a theory of sensibility.  This illuminates the arts of the past as well as of our time, and it recognizes aesthetic value as an often hidden feature of all experience.  Such a generalized aesthetic enables us to recognize the presence of a pervasive aesthetic aspect in every experience, whether uplifting or demeaning, exalting or brutal.[9]  It makes the constant expansion of the range of art and of aesthetic experience both plausible and comprehensible.  How, then, can we understand sensibility?

            By sensibility I mean perceptual awareness that is developed, guided, and focused.  It is more than simple sensation, more than sense perception.  Perhaps one can consider it educated sensation.  It requires the perceptual knowledge and skills that we are continually enhancing in and through our encounters and activities.  Aesthetic sensibility develops and uses this capacity at the deliberate center of conscious experience.  In Western cultures, the arts have been the primary medium for promoting such awareness, and we can consider changes in artistic style, the emergence of new movements, and even entire historical periods in the arts as fundamentally changes in sensibility.  Looking at culture change more broadly, we can regard fashion, etiquette, and behavior patterns in general as part of the prevailing sensibility of a place and time.  So while sensibility is not a term common in the literature of aesthetics, what it denotes is not new or unfamiliar.  Indeed, one could write a history of aesthetics around this idea, ranging from contexts in which sensible experience was impeded, repressed, or hidden behind conventions of acceptability, to arts and artists whose work developed out of its limitless possibilities.

            Human activities seem always to have exhibited qualitative interests in fashioning craft objects, as well as decorative and ornamental ones, together with those we now call artistic.  All of these display an attention and delight in features and qualities we now call aesthetic, such as the tactile appeal of surfaces; the attraction of pattern, regularity, and coloration.  These characteristics often join with signs of care, precision, and formal coherence that are sometimes related to practical or functional requirements but often stand quite apart from them.  And, of course, there are those features of objects that are superfluous for practical purposes but are nevertheless valued and deliberately included.  In addition to craft objects there are ceremonial and ritual activities and the narrative skills of bards, all of which display a sensitivity in their production beyond simply accomplishing a given task.  The senses are multiply involved and are distributed non-exclusively throughout all these activities. For no art activity relies on a single sense while, at the same time, sensory experience is suffused with meaning and associations, often implicit or hidden.  A developed sensibility responds to all of these.

            The multiple facets of life experience become strata that the fine arts often draw on and extend.  From the start, sense experience was not isolated or channeled, and later appropriations of sensation as “subjective,” mechanical, or purely physiological are aberrations rather than purifications.  Sensibility, informed by sensory experience, is therefore not purely “subjective,” mental, or exclusively private but a character of awareness by living humans in a context that is seamlessly natural, social, structural, and cultural.

            A heightened sensibility, however, while essential, does not in itself fully describe the finely-honed perceptual engagement that strives to fulfill the possibilities of aesthetic appreciation.  Human sensibility enters into every region of experience and a distinctively aesthetic mode is widely recognized.  A theory of aesthetic sensibility, however, needs to recognize and discriminate its nuances.  We can begin by identifying at least five contributing dimensions.

            (1)  perceptual acuteness.   Sensory awareness that exhibits sharp, focused attention to all perceptual aspects of an aesthetic situation.  This is the primary condition of aesthetic appreciation.

            (2)  perceptual discrimination.  This recognizes the multi-sensory and synaesthetic nuances in sensible experience, such as its subtle, shifting palette of tonalities, its multiple layers, and its textural qualities.

            (3)  emotional sensitivity.  The somatic reception and response to perceptual stimuli are an essential part of aesthetic sensibility.  Reception that is mistakenly understood as subjective or mentalistic does not recognize the essential, constitutive, affective contribution that the perceiver makes to the aesthetic situation as an embodied being who is at the same time conditioned by physical, historical, and cultural influences.

            (4)  perceptual engagement.  The cornerstone of the perceiver’s contribution lies in the liveliness of appreciative perception.  Appreciation activates the perceptual possibilities of the situation.  It is a unique contribution that each person makes through the unique, distinctive capacities (physical, cognitive, and mnemonic) the perceiver activates in the occasion.

            (5)  perceptual meaning.  Meaning comes last so as not to overshadow or blind the perceptual force that is the substance of aesthetic appreciation.  Appreciation is not a cognitive act but often involves embodied meaning.  Meanings that are bound up in perception, meanings that are experienced, do not replace perception but may reinforce and enhance it.

V.  Aesthetics and sensibility

            Let us look now at how sensibility illuminates some factors in aesthetics.  The aesthetic object tends to be the center of perceptual attention.  It may take the form of an art object, such as a painting, sculpture, musical composition, literary work, or any other object of artistic fashioning.  As an art object, it is the product of some activity; it is something made.  As an aesthetic object, it is the object as it works in perception.  Here sensibility lies in a complex focused attention on every perceptual feature or aspect of the object, at how it interacts with others, and at its varying strength and stability.  Considering the art object as an aesthetic object emphasizes its sensory qualities in their complexity and interrelationships.  Sensible appreciation lies in apprehending how the object exhibits and works through its perceptual qualities.  It is a process of engaging perceptually with the object, not regarding it distantly and dispassionately.  Any judgment that is arrived at rests on this perceptual foundation, enhanced by knowledge and past experience.  Such perceptual openness enables us to recognize experientially how well the object functions in that situation and, if desirable, to form a judgment about its success.  Any such             judgment is the product of a complex perceptual process and can provide a clear grounding for assessing the object’s success.  We have, then, the possibility of positive and negative aesthetic judgment along a multi-dimensional scale, for no object is an undifferentiated whole.  Perceptual success, then, is the criterion for a positive and negative aesthetics, the negativity being based on perceptual failure.


            Aesthetic sensibility , then, can clarify the various arts, each through its distinctive perceptual capacities.  Art today has moved to abandon the fixation on object-centered experience in such developments as performance art, community art, improvisational dance, improvisation theater, and reality art.  In dialogical or relational art, the artist may invite the audience into a process that shares the responsibility and authorship of the work.  This turns the work into more of a process, performance, or duration than a fixed object.  It can illuminate nature whether perceived as  landscapes, scenes,  or discrete objects.  Similarly, aesthetic sensibility has particularly rich possibilities for enhancing our perception of the built environment through multi-sensory bodily engagement.  Such aesthetic engagement transforms our environmental perception of space, mass, and density when apprehended not as abstractions but in the lived acute sensory experience of everyday life.

V.  Conclusion  [The theory of sensibility]

            No experience is value-free, for everything we encounter and undergo is colored by our interests, responses, or simple attention.  Thus the search for the satisfaction of sensible experience comes from a thirst for positive perceptual value which we find can be fulfilled by the perceptual satisfactions of the arts, natural beauty, and the immensely rich forms and details of the world of human life.  This account of a perceptually-based aesthetics returns the meaning of ‘aesthetics’ to its origins and reaffirms the critical place of sensation and sense perception.  This is but the start, since sense perception is never simple sensation or pure perception but a complex, multi-faceted field experience.  When such experience centers around the occasions of art and beauty, sensation is focused, dwelt on, cultivated.  This is what is meant by sensibility, and it leads to considering aesthetics as the theory of sensibility.     [3074 wds.]




[1]   See  Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense:  The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World (Exeter:  Imprint Academic, 2010),   Crispin Sartwell, Political Aesthetics. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), and Davide Panagia, The Poetics of Political Thinking (Duke UP, 2006) and The Political Life of Sensation (Duke UP, 2009).

[2]   Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Aesthetica (Frankfurt a. O., 1750), Vol. I.

[3]    Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art (

[4]   Animal behavior in courting often exhibits what we consider aesthetic attributes similar to those we recognize in dance, architecture, and design.  The behavior of male birds is a common example, as in the Australian bower bird and the peacock. 

[5]   Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1790.

[6]   Critique of Judgment, §2, §8, §22

[7]  This has been a principal preoccupation of my own work in which I have proposed the unity of perceiver and object in an aesthetic field, and developed aesthetic engagement as characterizing appreciative experience.  The present essay carries this effort still further by developing aesthetic sensibility as the central factor in appreciation.

[8]  The concept of an aesthetic field describes the complex context of which appreciative experience is a part.  See my book, The Aesthetic Field:  A Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Springfield, Ill.:  C. C. Thomas l970).  Second edition, with a new Preface (Cybereditions: 2001).

[9]   I have developed the idea of the normative range of aesthetic value in Sensibility and Sense:  The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World (Exeter, UK:  Imprint Academic, 2010).

Ibid., Note 11.