Aesthetic value is the value that an object, event or state of affairs (most paradigmatically an art work or the natural environment) possesses in virtue of its capacity to elicit pleasure (positive value) or displeasure (negative value) when appreciated or experienced aesthetically.
Everything that is valuable is valuable in a variety of ways. Art objects often have sentimental value, historical value or financial value. Wilderness can have economic value as well as recreational value. But great art works are thought to possess a distinctive sort of non-instrumental and non-utilitarian value that is of central concern when they are evaluated as art works. It might be thought that this value is beauty, but many artworks are not beautiful. So it is more plausible that beauty is a particular species of the value in question. The aesthetic value that a work of art possesses (and most would extend this to the natural environment) has to do with the sort of experience it provides when engaged with appropriately. If it provides pleasure in virtue of our experience of its beauty, elegance, gracefulness, harmony, proportion, unity, etc., we say that it has positive aesthetic value. If it provides displeasure in virtue of ugliness, deformity or disgustingness we may say that it has negative aesthetic value. One important thing to note is that the pleasure or displeasure underwriting aesthetic value is best thought of as directed at the object in question rather than being merely caused by it (Stecker, 1997).
The term 'aesthetic' (which is derived from the Greek word 'aesthesis', meaning sensory perception) only gained philosophical currency in the eighteenth-century after British Enlightenment theorists, such as Shaftesbury (1711), Hutcheson (1725), and Hume (1757) had developed influential theories of the sense of beauty and the faculty of taste - capacities that allegedly enable us to make judgements of beauty or ugliness. Baumgarten's (1750) introduction of the term 'aesthetics' emphasised the sensory, rather than intellectual, nature of such judgements. This then evolved into Kant's (1790) conception of aesthetic judgements as non-conceptual and rooted entirely in pleasure or displeasure. Kant distinguishes a sub-category of aesthetic judgments (viz., judgments of the beautiful) that he characterizes as disinterested, i.e., independent of any interest in the existence or practical value of the object. This Kantian conception of a disinterested judgment rooted in hedonic experience is the foundation of many contemporary theories of aesthetic value.
The emphasis on pleasure and displeasure has always appeared to pose a challenge to the objectivity of aesthetic value and aesthetic value judgments. But although some believe aesthetic value to be a matter of pure personal preference, there has always been strong philosophical resistance against such radical subjectivism. After all, we do dispute about aesthetic matters and our disputes seem coherent. If aesthetics were just a matter of personal preference such disputes would appear to be unmotivated and irrational. Kant, for instance, considers aesthetic judgments 'subjective', in that they are rooted in pleasure or displeasure, but he also claims that judgments of the beautiful involves a claim to universality; that is, the judgment that something is beautiful (and, hence, aesthetically valuable) involves the claim that others should agree with us. And, as Hume emphasizes, we do not treat all judgments of taste as equally valid. Furthermore, the ability of some works of art to pass the 'test of time' seems to provide reason for thinking that aesthetic value is not simply relative to individuals or cultures. So, radical subjectivism or anything goes relativism about aesthetic value seem implausible. Nevertheless, while many philosophers reject relativism altogether, some believe that a degree of relativism is characteristic of the domain of aesthetic value.
Inspired by Kant's dissociation of aesthetic judgments from practical judgments, aesthetic attitude theorists of the twentieth century defended the view that a particular, characteristically non-practical mode of contemplating an object (disinterestedness or distance) allows one to recognize the aesthetic features of objects and, hence, their aesthetic value. Yet the idea of a specifically aesthetic attitude has been criticized both on grounds of psychological implausibility and because it excessively dissociates the aesthetic from cognitive and moral value.
Current developments have therefore involved an expansion of the category of the aesthetic. Aesthetic value is thus not restricted to the formal features of artworks, but increasingly tends to be thought of as dependent on, or interacting with, a variety of other aspects, most notably contextual, cognitive, and moral factors. Another trend is the development of virtue aesthetics, which explores the psychological and behavioural dispositions that are most conducive to the recognition and production of aesthetic value. The emerging fields of environmental aesthetics and everyday aesthetics expand the scope of aesthetic value far beyond the arts so as to include virtually any object. Far from being a mere theoretical enterprise, a central concern of these recent developments is to maximise the understanding of the role aesthetic value may play in environmental policy and the way in which aesthetic value contributes to our wellbeing and a good life.
Dickie, G. (1964). The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude. American Philosophical Quarterly, 1, 56-65.
Kant, I. (1790/2001). Critique of the Power of Judgement. Edited by Guyer, P., translated by Guyer, P. and Matthews, E., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Saito, Y. (2007). Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stolnitz, J. (1960). Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism. A Critical Introduction. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.