Agora Speaker Series 2020 - Professor Jennifer McMahon

Undergraduate Talk

Title: What Has Taste Got to Do With It?


The area of enquiry that we now know of in Western philosophy as “Aesthetics”, took hold in the 18th century when certain philosophers wanted to pin down those aspects of experience which seemed to outrun our communicative capacities. Those so interested pushed back at Rene Descartes’ dismissal of such aspects as obscure and confused. Descartes thought that experience that could not be articulated as explicit propositions, was not a subject worthy of philosophical attention.[i] This view is shared by many today not in relation to philosophical analysis in particular but in terms of our attention more broadly. For example, recently I watched a rerun of an old Grand Designs Episode and I was disappointed to hear the guru Kevin McCloud dismiss someone’s disdain of a neighbour’s house design with “That’s just taste!”

Taking a cue from the pages of philosophical history, we can push back by identifying the way new perspectives, or new models – ways of construing experience that represent new conventions, attitudes or social norms – are noticed and eventually adopted. From the point of view of the originator of the new perspective – or the originator of a new mode or concept through which to communicate the perspective - it is as if aspects of experience have formerly gone unnoticed. From the 18th century, “aesthetic form” came to be understood as the vehicle by which new meaning could be communicated to others. “Aesthetic form” is not defined by material or method, but by whether a form can become something to which we ascribe ideas – as if the thing itself represented or even originated those ideas. Think of the way a style of architecture can represent stability and endurance; or alternatively, idiosyncrasy and whimsy.
But the sticking point here is that a style can only take hold as a source of ideas which actually impacts upon one’s perspective if one endorses those ideas. Otherwise imagining is resisted and the relevant ideas do not take hold (which puts significant limits on just what artistic objects can communicate). For the 18th century philosophers who were exercised by this possibility, the endorsement was identified with an experience of beauty. To understand this endorsement, so as not to confuse it with the rhetorical purposes of the orator, a consideration of the origins of the aesthetic category is useful.
In this brief talk I will discuss these origins to show that Kevin got it wrong. Taste has everything to do with why anyone would bother to go to the lengths his subjects do to put a roof over their heads.

Research Talk

Title: Insight or Rhetoric: what we can learn from fiction


The images we internalize from fiction particularly cinema can come to represent our goals, our ideals and what we think is possible.
In this talk I am not so much defending this view as suggesting what kinds of objections we need to answer before we take this view seriously. And by answering these objections, we will see the answers shape how we understand what is happening when images from fiction play a role in our mental life and the behaviours which arise from it.
The objections are around the idea that learning from fiction is unreliable; that it can only be trivial; and that when it does occur it is manipulative.