Monday, June 20, 2005


Philosophers are used to hearing words like metaphysics, meta-ethics, and even sometimes words like meta-epistemology or metalogic. One that you don't hear very often, though, is meta-aesthetics, or metaesthetics (depending on how much you like hyphens). If those other branches of philosophy can be divided between their meta- branches and their nonmeta- parts, we should be able to apply the same principle to aesthetics, right?

I realize, in thinking about what exactly metaesthetics means, that aesthetics itself encompasses that which the meta- prefix hopes to capture. It is like the study of metaphilosophy, whose ideas are continued within the meaning of the word philosophy itself. If we are going to be specific enough in fields such as ethics as to make separate names for it, then we might as well in the study of aesthetics as well.

Metaesthetics is that branch of aesthetics which seeks to understand the nature of aesthetics evaluations.

In ethics, we have normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics asks such questions as "what actions are right or wrong" whereas meta-ethics asks questions like "what does one mean when one says 'right or wrong'?"

Like ethics, metaesthetics differentiates itself from a categorical aesthetics by asking about the nature of the philosophy we use when making aesthetical judgments. Where aesthetics asks "which of these things before me are beautiful," metaesthetics asks "what is the nature of beauty." Aesthetics is the inquiry into what things are art, whereas metaesthetics seeks to define art in a level of abstraction beyond the concretes of particular works of are.

This is all very different from meta-art, which would be art that depicts the nature of art. Take, for example, Neil Stephenson's naming the hero in his book Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist, and you see what meta-art aims to create. In the realm of music, see also my upcoming meta-choral piece for mixed chorus (still as yet to be written).

Am I being to picky and particular about this naming thing? Does metaesthetics belong within the larger term of aesthetics? Am I simply splitting hairs here, or is this a valid term?


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