Philosophy Colloquium Asks All the Big Questions on Aesthetics
“In the earliest discussions of the Greeks there’s talk of the meaning of art in human life,” said Peter McInerney, a professor in the philosophy department. “There are philosophically significant issues about it. Is art necessary to understand something of moral life?”
Questions of what makes art, and what makes art significant, fall under the category of aesthetics. Last weekend marked the 37th Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy. This year it found its focus in the discussion and exploration of aesthetics.
“It’s a professional conference,” said McInerney. “We’re not bringing in people to talk to students. They’re welcome to attend...but it’s not oriented to a general audience. We invite notable people working in the field to attend.”
This year is slightly different in that this semester there has been a seminar designed around the Colloquium, called Workshop in Contemporary Aesthetics, co-taught by Philosophy Professors Katherine Thomson-Jones and Jim Bell.
“The idea behind that was to give students the opportunity to look at the most important writing in contemporary aesthetics,” said Bell. “Then we would invite them to attend colloquium with a sufficient background to understand and get more out of the discussion between philosophers.
“As it turns out, the speakers frequently referred to the readings for class,” continued Bell. “[The students] were in a very good position to understand these sort of unfinished works being presented at the conference.”
The presenting philosophers themselves were the motivating force behind the organization of the conference.
“The colloquium has a history of attracting the top scholars in the field,” said Professor Todd Ganson, who organized the conference along with Bell and Thomson-Jones, the latter of whom could not be reached for comment. “We want to bring in some really high-profile speakers.”
In this way, which speakers Oberlin can attract tends to have a high impact on the series’ focus.
“We define the topic broadly enough to include the best people in the field,” said Ganson. “We’d never had a colloquium strictly on aesthetics and it’s [Thomson-Jones’s] specialty, so we were in a good position to know who to get.”
The colloquium was organized into five speakers and five commentators. The speeches were approximately an hour long and followed by 15-minute responses featuring another philosopher serving as the commentator.
“[Thomson-Jones] was the real organizational force,” said Ganson. “It seemed to her that there was a lot of work being done on the philosophy of literature and narrative. It turns out that several contributors ended up talking about precisely that.”
Exploring philosophical questions relating to narrative and literature made up three of the five lectures. The first was called “Narrative Closure” and was delivered by Noel Carroll of Temple University. This, as it sounds, explored what about narrative allows for closure — about what makes it satisfying.
It was followed by a lecture by Peter Lamarque of York University that asked, “Can There be an Aesthetics of Literature?” This explored how literature could be aesthetically pleasing — through language and word choice — and why.
Another lecture in this vein was titled “Recent Work on Narration in Film and Literature,” by George Wilson of the University of Southern California.
“[There is a theory that says] where there is storytelling in film or narration in general, there will always be a storyteller,” said Bell. “When we’re engaged in narration we’re a part of imagining that narrator.”
“There have been recent attacks against that theory,” continued Bell. “This author defended and explored it.”
Two lectures did not concern themselves with narrative. The first was called “The Genealogy of Aesthetics” and was delivered by Gregory Currie of Nottingham University. The lecture proposed that before we had even evolved into homo sapiens, we were making art through the design of tools. This theory links the capacity for art to the instinct for survival and reproduction.
The second was by Cynthia Freeland of the University of Houston, called “Portraits in Painting and Photography.” This looked at how a “portrait” is revealed by the different mediums and the artist’s role in revealing it.
Although this conference is more focused on academia itself than on teaching, there is a sense that it’s an important, somewhat defining element of the school.
“It’s an institution,” said Bell. “[The colloquium]
is extremely well-known...It’s happened 37 times and each time we’ve
drawn the leading philosophers in the field. It’s not an exaggeration to
say that these were some of the best aestheticians.”