What Philosophical Aesthetics Can Learn from Applied Anthropology (pages 41-53)

Anna Kawalec

ABSTRACT: Through a detailed case study of investigations on beauty, I demonstrate that a thoughtful consideration of empirical evidence can lead to the disclosure of the fundamental assumptions entrenched in a philosophical discipline. I present a contrastive examination of two empirically oriented approaches to art and beauty, namely, the anthropology of art and the anthropology of aesthetics. To capture these two different ways of interpreting the available evidence, I draw upon a debate between Alfred Gell and Jeremy Coote on the understanding of beauty and art in the Dinka community. Following Gell, I reveal that the Western-centric predilection of Coote, who uses traditional aesthetic categories, leads to his failure to grasp the functional and causal roles of beauty in the social relations of the Dinka. In more general terms, my study reveals the inherent limitations of aesthetics as developed in the Western tradition and its Kantian legacy. Being steadily driven towards purely abstract and speculative concepts, such as ‘work of art,’ Western aesthetics has lost the ability to account for the causal role of beauty in social relations. By contrasting this approach with Gell’s anthropological approach to art, I indicate those fundamental assumptions of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline that apparently confine it to a particular cultural context, compromising its ability to account for the universal human condition. As my study illustrates, this limitation could be overcome by a thoughtful and unprejudiced examination of empirical evidence.

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