The Natural History of Aesthetics

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Thomas H. Ford University of Melbourne

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Art has been crucial for Western philosophy roughly since Kant – that is, for what is becoming known as “correlationist” philosophy – because it has so often had assigned to it a singular ontological status. The artwork, in this view, is material being that has been transfigured and shot through with subjectivity. The work of art, what art does and how it works have all been understood as mediating between the otherwise irreconcilable opposites of historical spirit and the mute material world, between communicative thought and the unresponsiveness otherness of nature. I revisit this aesthetic tradition from the perspective of the Anthropocene, the proposed name of the new geological epoch of the present, distinguished by the fact that collective human action has now acquired the scale of a world-shaping natural force. The Anthropocene is at once a geological epoch and a historical period. What forms of narrative might possibly relate these two temporal orders together? What other aesthetic categories might help us think through the conceptual impasse of the Anthropocene present? How might aesthetic experience illuminate the history of Anthropocene? What natural histories might artworks tell today? My speculative endpoint: the Anthropocene globe is the universal artwork of the contemporary moment.

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