Rowman and Littlefield International

Aesthetic and Moral Education

Published on Tuesday 06 Jun 2017 by Rafe McGregor


‘Aesthetic’ is a vague and frustrating term with a profligate and confused history. During the Enlightenment, aesthetic was employed as a synonym for ‘beauty’, which was understood as taking many apparently unrelated forms, from the natural world to gardens to art to interior decorating and even mathematics. In the last two hundred years, aesthetic has most frequently been conflated with ‘artistic’ and philosophical aesthetics understood as sharing the same subject matter as art criticism. Both of these conceptions are too restrictive when it comes to the contemporary discipline and Bence Nany offers a refreshingly simply definition in Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception when he states that aesthetics is ‘about ways of perceiving the world that are really rewarding and special.’1 Nanay distinguishes the particular type of perception involved as FODP – focused on objects but distributed amongst the properties of those objects – providing a contemporary take on Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of aesthetic judgement in terms of disinterested pleasure. Combining the two, we have the aesthetic as primarily a kind of attention which is characteristically purposeless, i.e. useless without being worthless. ‘Aesthetic education’ has suffered as much if not more than ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to multiplicity of meanings and inconsistency of usage. Aesthetic education has been employed as a synonym for a liberal arts education, to mean education in or through the arts, and as a defence of the role of either the arts, the humanities, or both within the education system. Its philosophical use is, however, precise: the tradition of aesthetic education does not identify an education in aesthetics, but a moral or ethical education by aesthetic means.

The thesis originates, like so much else in value theory, with Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury’s work was highly original but notoriously unsystematic and he argued that aesthetic taste and art were necessary conditions for the flourishing of character and society respectively. Typically, Shaftesbury offered little evidence for this claim and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the theory was popularised. In his On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, Friedrich Schiller drew on Kant’s Third Critique to argue for the significance of the ‘instinct of play’ in removing the barrier that prevented the elevation of human being from the sensual and savage to the rational and moral.2 More significantly, beauty had political implications because the harmony that an aesthetic education produced in the individual was replicated at the level of the state, which blended individual freedom and social justice. One could say that aesthetic means were a sufficient condition for a moral or political education for Schiller, but unfortunately history presents numerous counterexamples of civilizations where beauty was revered without respect for human rights.

Schiller’s Letters were nonetheless popular among artists, critics, and philosophers and aesthetic education was adopted by public moralists such as John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century and cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin and F.R. Leavis in the twentieth century. The tradition was revitalised in the last decade of the twentieth century, following the posthumous revelation that literary theorist Paul de Man had collaborated with the National Socialist authorities in Belgium during the war, and the subsequent ethical turn in criticism was pioneered by Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralism, Richard Rorty’s pragmatism, and Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelianism. Nussbaum and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a former student of De Man’s, have advanced the most comprehensive contemporary theories of aesthetic education.

Nussbaum’s version, which is set out most clearly in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, is based on her identification of a genre of realist novels that includes (but is not restricted to) the work of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Richard Wright. In these novels, the intimacy of the relation between narrative form and moral content is such that ‘concern for the disadvantaged is built into the literary experience’.3 Nussbaum is extremely ambitious and proposes not only a moral education by aesthetic means, but also a political education, using Dickens’ Hard Times as an example of a novel that promotes liberal democracy on a necessary rather than contingent basis. For Spivak, aesthetic education is a theme (rather than an explicit theory) that links the twenty-five essays collected in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. She follows Schiller in claiming that aesthetic education can remove the barriers to self-actualisation and specifies these as gender and class prejudices that have been internalised by their victims. Spivak defines aesthetic education as ‘training the imagination for epistemological performance’, identifying the imagination as the bridge between the aesthetic and the ethical.4 Drawing on Derrida’s hyperbolic ethics, she argues that ethical situations are characteristically impossible – i.e., all moral choices are moral dilemmas – and that literature provides access to the imaginative experience of the impossible. In virtue of the shared feature of impossibility, aesthetic practice produces both aesthetic and ethical expertise.

Both Nussbaum and Spivak regard aesthetic experience – the experience of paying aesthetic attention to literary works – as an imaginative exercise that develops ethical sensibility and thus argue for a moral education by aesthetic means. Unfortunately, each thesis is flawed: Nussbaum restricts her claim to a very narrow selection of novels and admits that they must be read sympathetically in the first instance; Spivak’s theory is more convincing, but relies on the adoption of a radical reconception of ethical responsibility that many will resist. Perhaps more importantly in the age of quantification, monetisation, and profit-seeking against which Nussbaum and Spivak rail in their respective ways, there is barely any empirical evidence for the effects of aesthetic experience on ethical sensibility, although Sarah E. Worth provides a careful and compelling argument for taking what little there is seriously in her In Defense of Reading.5 The notion is nonetheless fascinating and affords philosophers, theorists, and psychologists a perfect opportunity for collaboration.


[1] Bence Nanay, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1.

[2] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters. trans. E.M. Wilkinson & L.A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon, 1794 [1968]), XIV: 67.

Schiller, Aesthetic Letters, II:28.

[3] Martha Nussbaum, Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 87.

[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 122.

[5] Sarah E. Worth, In Defense of Reading (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), 173-200.


Rafe McGregor is Associate Lecturer in the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. He is author of 'The Value of Literature', available here.