Philosophy of the Arts


Aesthetics encompasses a wide range of philosophical topics, united by their various relationships to forms of art. Some traditional topics within aesthetics deal with normative questions, often ones concerning the characteristic ways in which people assess art in positive and negative terms. What is it that makes a work of art ‘beautiful’, for example? And just what is the role of assessments of ‘beauty’ in relation to art? Indeed, what makes something an ‘artwork’? Angie Hobbs has a strong interest in the ways in which aesthetic values relate to ethical ones.

Other issues within aesthetics are not normative, but rather concern some of the distinctive forms of communication that loom large within artistic production. Pictures are central to the visual arts, for example, and it is tempting to think that pictures are in some ways fundamentally different to words: as the old saying has it, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Just what is special about pictorial representation, though, and just how does it relate to communication using language? Dominic Gregory has produced a lot of work on these questions, investigating the fundamental nature of forms of imagistic representation, and exploring the relationships between images and other forms of expression, and to our sensory powers themselves. Komarine Romdenh-Romluc has also published work examining Merleau-Ponty’s account of images.

Fictional language itself has some striking features, too. The names that feature within works of fiction - ‘Jane Eyre’, say, or ‘Mr Pickwick’ - contrast with many of the names that we use in ordinary life, in that they do not seem to stand for any real things. And this raises deep philosophical puzzles: it is natural to think that your own name means something because it picks you out; but what is the meaning of ‘Jane Eyre’, given that there is no real person for whom it stands? Niall Connolly has published work that investigates the nature of fictional characters, looking at whether our apparent ability meaningfully to talk about fictional beings like Peppa Pig, Captain Planet, and Posie Flump means that they really exist.

Members of the department have played an active part in the White Rose Aesthetics Forum, as organisers and contributors, and the Northern Imagination Forum was instituted by one of its PhD students. Recent PhD students working on aesthetics have produced theses and published papers on issues relating to the relationships between artistic and ethical values, for instance, and on the status and nature of moral beauty; they have also taken up post-doctoral positions in Oxford and Cambridge. The department also provides a very popular second-year undergraduate module on Philosophy and the Arts; and it organises the long-running and successful series Philosophy at the Showroom, in tandem with the Showroom cinema in Sheffield, at which films chosen by members of the department are presented, along with accompanying discussion of their philosophical significance.

Representative publications:

  • Connolly, Niall (2011). “How the dead live”. Philosophia.
  • Gregory, D. (2010). “Pictures, pictorial contents, and vision”. British Journal of Aesthetics.
  • Gregory, D. (2013). Showing, Sensing, and Seeming: Distinctively Sensory Representations and their Contents. Oxford University Press.
  • Gregory, D. (2020). “Pictures, propositions, and predicates”. American Philosophical Quarterly
  • Gregory, D. (Forthcoming). “Image, image-making, and imagination”. In A. Ch. Sukla and K. Moser (eds), Imagination and Art: Explorations in Contemporary Theory. Brill.
  • Hobbs, A. (2017). “Socrates, eros and magic”. In V. Harte & R. Woolf (eds), Rereading Ancient Philosophy: Old Chestnuts and Sacred Cows. Cambridge University Press.
  • Romdenh-Romluc, K. (2015). “Image: for the eye and in mind”. In M. Nitsche (ed), Image in Space. Verlag Traugott Bautz.