From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on aesthetics, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on aesthetics. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on aesthetics in no particular order.
But Is It Art? – Cynthia Freeland
Category: Short Textbook | Length: 256 pages | Published: 2002
Publisher’s description: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art?
In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern, often sensational, works back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. In addition, Freeland guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Lastly, throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor. …
Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction – Noël Carroll
Category: Comprehensive Introduction| Length: 288 pages | Published: 1999
Publisher’s description: Philosophy of Art is a textbook for undergraduate students interested in the topic of philosophical aesthetics.
It introduces the techniques of analytic philosophy as well as key topics such as the representational theory of art, formalism, neo-formalism, aesthetic theories of art, neo-Wittgensteinism, the Institutional Theory of Art. as well as historical approaches to the nature of art.
Throughout, abstract philosophical theories are illustrated by examples of both traditional and contemporary art including frequent reference to the avant-garde in this way enriching the readers understanding of art theory as well as the appreciation of art.
Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Cahn & Meskin
Category: Anthology | Length: 704 pages | Published: 2007
Publisher’s description: From Plato’s Ion to works by contemporary philosophers, this anthology showcases classic texts to illuminate the development of philosophical thought about art and the aesthetic. This volume is the most comprehensive collection of readings on aesthetics and the philosophy of art currently available.
- Brings together the most significant writings in aesthetics and philosophy of art from the past 2500 years
- Each section includes a useful introductory essay which provides an overview of developments in the field
- Broken down into three sections: Historical Sources, Modern Theories, and Contemporary Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art
- Thorough, systematic, and flexible, including two alternative tables of contents (historical and topical); an ideal textbook and guide to the field
The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics – Jerrold Levinson
Category: Academic Handbook | Length: 848 pages | Published: 2005
The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics brings the authority, liveliness, and multi-disciplinary scope of the Handbook series to a fascinating theme in philosophy and the arts. Jerrold Levinson has assembled a hugely impressive range of talent to contribute 48 brand-new essays, making this the most comprehensive guide available to the theory, application, history, and future of the field. This Handbook will be invaluable to academics and students across philosophy and all branches of the arts, both as the reference work of choice and as a stimulus to new research and creativity.
Poetics – Aristotle
Category: Classic | Length: 144 pages | Published: ∼335 BC
Publisher’s description: In the Poetics, his near-contemporary account of classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle examine the dramatic elements of plot, character, language and spectacle that combine to produce pity and fear in the audience, and asks why we derive pleasure from this apparently painful process. Taking examples from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Poetics introduced into literary criticism such central concepts as mimesis (‘imitation’), hamartia (‘error’) and katharsis, which have informed serious thinking about drama ever since. Aristotle explains how the most effective tragedies rely on complication and resolution, recognition and reversals, while centring on chaaracerts of heroic stature, idealised yet true to life. One of the most perceptive and influential works of criticism in Western literary history, the Poetics has informed serious thinking about drama ever since. …
Of the Standard of Taste – David Hume
Category: Classic | Length: 448 pages | Published: 1757
Publisher’s description: In his writings, David Hume set out to bridge the gap between the learned world of the academy and the marketplace of polite society. This collection, drawing largely on his Essays Mortal, Political, and Literary (1776 edition), comprehensively shows how far he succeeded.
As seen in these selections, Hume embraces a staggering range of social, cultural, political, demographic, and historical concerns, charting the state of civil society, manners, morals, and taste, and the development of political economy in the mid-eighteenth century. These essays represent not only those areas where Hume’s arguments representative of his age, but also where he is strikingly innovative.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Aesthetics – Cambridge University
- Aesthetics: History and Contemporary Continental Theory – Sample Syllabus
- Philosophy of Art – University of Pennsylvania
- Aesthetics – Rice University
- Introduction to Aesthetics – Bellevue College
- Introduction to the Philosophy of Art – Bergen Community College
- Philosophy and the Arts – University of Houston
- Best introductory book to the philosophy of art?
- What is essential reading on the topic of aesthetics?
- The best books on The Philosophy of Art recommended by Noël Carroll
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.