Research

Overview

I work in aesthetics and ethics mostly tackling questions about values, the imagination, and what philosophers call ‘normativity’ in art, art appreciation, and related aesthetic activities. Most of this work intersects other areas, such as feminist philosophy, the philosophy of race, and metaphysics. I recently concluded a two-year European Commission-funded research project investigating these issues at the University of Southampton. I am soon to begin a three year research project continuing in the same vein at the University of Hamburg.

I have also written about our interest in the outcomes of sports and games and whether we literally see the things depicted in photographs.

My dissertation ‘Problems to Appreciate: Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Imagination’, was supervised by Kendall Walton, Sarah Buss, Daniel Jacobson, and Gregg Crane. It consists of three papers that address some aspect of appreciation, all of which are now published (in Phil Imprint, the AJP, and JAAC). The first two of these have been honoured with prizes (here and here). Some of my other work has been cited widely, including by a report produced for the British Board of Film Classification. I have had the good fortune of being able to present research at venues across the world. You can read more about it here.

To encourage work at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics, I recently co-founded a research group, AERG. I’m also interested in many other questions in philosophy and beyond.

Please email me if you would like to see drafts of my work in progress (or published pieces you can’t access).


Recent and Upcoming Talks

TBD

Panel on the work of Kendall Walton, Pacific Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Vancouver | April 2022


Intimate Relations: On the Ethical Question and the ‘Qua Problem’

American Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference, Montreal | November 2021

Institutskolloquium, University of Hamburg | 30th June 2021


Talk to Graduate Students on Grants and the Academic Job Market

Department of Philosophy, University of Georgia | 24th September 2021


Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, Or, ‘What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?’

Department of Theatre and Film Studies Colloquium, University of Georgia | 24th September 2021

Aesthetics Discussion Group, University of Michigan | 2nd April, 2021


Reflections on Abortion

Public Panel on Abortion, Auburn University | 29th March, 2021


Simple Pleasures (with Nick Wiltsher)

American Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference, online | November 2020

Southern Aesthetics Workshop, online | September 2020


Published/Forthcoming Articles

‘Autonomism’, in The Oxford Handbook of Art and Ethics, James Harold (ed.) (New York: OUP, forthcoming).

Encyclopedia article detailing and evaluating various arguments for autonomism, which claims, roughly, that an artwork’s aesthetic value swings free of any ethical value it has.


‘Transparency and Egocentrism’, in Art, Representation and Make-Believe: Essays on the Philosophy of Kendall L. Walton, Sonia Sedivy (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 2021).

I consider a number of criticisms of the claim, famously made by Kendall Walton, that photographs are ‘transparent’ (i.e. that we literally see what they depict, not just representations of those things). Specifically, I consider those criticisms that appeal to what I call ‘egocentrism’, according to which (roughly) a visual experience counts as seeing something only if the experience helps locate that thing in one’s ‘egocentric space’. I show how egocentrism fails to undermine photographic transparency.

Presented at the University of Fribourg (Feb 2020)

Pre-published version here.


‘Fatal Prescription’, The British Journal of Aesthetics, 60(2) (2020), pp. 151-163.

In this paper, I argue that Berys Gaut’s most important argument for ethicism, the Merited Response Argument, suffers from an ambiguity that renders it invalid. Ethicism is the view (roughly) that intrinsic ethical flaws in artworks can count as aesthetic flaws and ethical virtues as aesthetic merits. The Merited Response Argument claims that works prescribing unmerited responses are flawed and that being unethical is one way responses can be unmerited. Specifically, I argue that Gaut’s notion of ‘prescribing’ a response is ambiguous between merely attempting to elicit a response and endorsing it as appropriate for export to the actual world. The ambiguity is fatal because while attempting to elicit an unethical response may constitute an aesthetic flaw, it doesn’t constitute an ethical one. In contrast, while endorsing an unethical response may constitute an ethical flaw, it doesn’t constitute and aesthetic one. So the grounds for the ethical criticism and the aesthetic criticism are wholly distinct.

Presented at a meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics (Sep 2016), the American Society for Aesthetics (Nov 2016), and at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM  (Nov 2017).

Pre-published version here.


‘Meriting a Response: the Paradox of ‘Seductive’ Artworks’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 97(3), (2019), pp. 465-482.

Winner of the AJP Best Paper Award for 2019.

Many artworks use artistic techniques to elicit responses. In Das Boot’s final scene, for instance, the U96’s crew is strafed into oblivion following several treacherous months at sea. The scene does not merely prescribe that we imagine a U-Boat crew dock and be killed. It also prescribes that we feel despair. According to a principle I call the Merit Principle, roughly, works of art that prescribe unmerited responses fail on their own terms and are thereby aesthetically flawed. A horror film, for instance, that prescribes fear towards something that is not scary is to that extent aesthetically flawed. The Merit Principle is not only intuitive, it can also be gleaned from Aristotle’s and Hume’s discussions of tragedy, and is endorsed by a handful of contemporary figures. In this paper, I show how the principle leads to paradox when applied to an undertheorized class of artworks I call “seductive artworks”. These are works, of which there are many examples, which prescribe an unmerited response, in order to prescribe a second-order repudiation of that response. Importantly, the way these works are structured means that they necessarily prescribe an unmerited response. Thus, according to the Merit Principle, they are necessarily aesthetically flawed, which seems counter-intuitive. I show how a number of potential solutions to this brand new paradox fail, before rejecting the Merit Principle as it stands. I conclude by drawing out what is theoretically challenging about seductive artworks and sketching a defence of an alternative principle that appeals to the general way an artwork’s aesthetic value is conditioned by constraints under which the work operates. This principle not only satisfactorily resolves the paradox, it also neatly explains the competing intuitions behind it.

Presented at a meeting of the Aesthetics Discussion Group at the University of Michigan (Feb 2015), the ‘Aesthetics, Normativity, and Reasons’ conference at the University of Kent (Jun 2015), before the philosophy departments at the Universities of Michigan (Sep 2015) and Southampton (Nov 2015), at the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics at Homerton College, University of Cambridge (Sep 2015) and the American Society for Aesthetics in Savannah, Georgia (Nov 2015), at the ninth Inter-university Workshop: ‘Art and Negative Emotions’ at the Univerity of Murcia (Oct 2015), and the 16th NYU-Columbia graduate conference (Feb 2016).

Pre-published version here.

Recording of me reading the paper here.


‘Sport, Make-believe, and Volatile Attitudes’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 75(3) (2017), pp. 275-288.

The outcomes of sports and competitive games excite intense emotions in many people, even when those same people acknowledge that those outcomes are of trifling importance. I call this incongruity between the judged importance of the outcome and the intense reaction it provokes the Puzzle of Sport. The puzzle bears similarities to a similar puzzle in aesthetics: the Paradox of Fiction, which asks how it is we become emotionally caught up with events and characters we know to be unreal. In this paper, I examine the prospects of understanding our engagement with competitive games on the model of our engagement with works of fiction, thus enabling a common explanation for both puzzles. I show that there are significant obstacles to such an approach and offer an alternative line of explanation, using the work of David Velleman and Thomas Nagel, that appeals to the volatility of our motivational attitudes.

Presented at meetings of the Aesthetics Discussion Group and Graduate Student Working Group at the University of Michigan, the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, San Diego (Oct 2013), and the ‘How to Make-believe’ conference at the University of Lund (Mar 2012).

Pre-published version here.


‘Imaginative and Fictionality Failure: a Normative Approach’, Philosophers’ Imprint 15(34) (2015), pp. 1-18.

Winner of Fab Flock Five award for 2015.

If a work of literary fiction prescribes us to imagine that the Devil made a bet with God and transformed into a poodle, then that claim is true in the fiction and we imagine accordingly. Generally, we cooperate imaginatively with literary fictions, however bizarre, and the things authors write into their stories become true in the fiction. But for some claims, such as moral falsehoods, this seems not to be straightforwardly the case, which raises the question: Why not? The puzzles such cases raise are sometimes grouped under the heading “imaginative resistance”. In this paper, I argue against what I take to be the best attempts to (a) dismiss the puzzles and (b) solve them. I also tease out subtleties not sufficiently addressed in the existing literature and end by defending a unified solution of my own. According to this solution, the puzzling phenomena occur when literary works offer inadequate and exhaustive grounds for claims. The solution’s novelty lies in its giving a normative rather than psychological or alethic explanation for the puzzling phenomena, the relevant norms being those of proper artistic appreciation.

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford (Sep 2014), to the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan (Sep 2014), the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in San Antonio (Nov 2014), as well as the Eastern meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia (Dec 2014). Early ancestors were also presented at a meeting of the University of Michigan’s Aesthetics Discussion Group (November 2009) and at the University of Sheffield’s philosophy graduate seminar (May 2009).


‘Sadomasochism as Make-Believe’, Hypatia 24(2) (2009), pp. 21-38

In ‘Rethinking Sadomasochism’, Patrick Hopkins challenges the radical feminist claim that sadomasochism is incompatible with feminism. He does so by appeal to the notion of “simulation”. I argue that Hopkins’s conclusions are generally right, but they cannot be inferred from his simulation argument. Moreover, Hopkins neglects to address one of the central arguments advanced by radical feminists. I replace Hopkins’s simulation account with Kendall Walton’s more sophisticated theory of make-believe. I use this theory to blunt the unaddressed radical feminist criticism and, more generally, to better argue that privately conducted sadomasochism is compatible with feminism.

Pre-published version here.


Other Academic Publications

Review of Peter Kivy ‘De Gustibus’ in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 77 (3), (2019), pp. 342-327.

Pre-published version here.


Review of Hans Maes ‘Conversations on Art and Aesthetics’ in The British Journal of Aesthetics 59(3), (2019), pp. 339-341.

Pre-published version here.


Review of Ema Sullivan-Bissett, Helen Bradley, and Paul Noordhof (eds.) ‘Art and Belief’ in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2018).


Review of Kendall Walton’s ‘In Other Shoes’ in The British Journal of Aesthetics, 57 (4), (2017), pp. 443–447.

Pre-published version here.


The Philosopher’s Annual (2013), Vol. 32 (edited with Chloe Armstrong, Patrick Grim, and Patrick Shirreff)

The Philosopher’s Annual is an anthology published once a year. Its hopelessly ambitious mission is to assemble the ten best philosophical articles published during the preceding year.


Work in Progress

To see drafts, please email me.

Beyond Moralism: How Ethics Shapes Aesthetic Value in Art (monograph – under contract with OUP)

This is a book culminating over a decade of work on the relevance of ethical to aesthetic values in artworks. In the book, I distinguish two ways of understanding the debate’s central question, relating to whether we understand ethical value’s contribution to an artwork’s aesthetics value as direct or indirect and show how immoralism (sometimes also called ‘contextualism’) is true on both; that is, ethical merits and flaws in a work can both redound to its aesthetic betterment or detriment. More than this though, the book shows why only the direct version of the question is interesting, why the entire literature has addressed the indirect question, and draws on work in metaphysics and the philosophy of science to determine what makes an ethico-aesthetic determining relation interesting to establish.

Portions and precursors presented at the 50th Anniversary Roundtable on Ethics and Aesthetics, UNAM (Sep 2017), Uppsala University (Jan 2018), the University of Illinois at Chicago (Mar 2018), the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics (Oct 2018), and the University of Sheffield (Nov 2018), University of Reading (Dec 2019), Scottish Aesthetics Forum (Jan 2020).


Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, ‘What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?’ (with Robin Zheng)

What is wrong with the practice of “blacking up” or other comparable acts of imagining? Setting aside “extrinsic” harms, many have pointed to the pernicious attitudes such imaginings invite participants to adopt. Recently, this strict view has been challenged by the lax, who claim imaginings can only be intrinsically ethically flawed by fully endorsing unethical attitudes. This paper carves a space between these two views. While imaginings are not morally objectionable merely in virtue of inviting participants to adopt pernicious attitudes in imagination, nor are they morally objectionable just when they endorse these attitudes. We on speech act theory, the sociology of oppression, and the history of blackface to articulate a three-part theory of how imaginings can come to be intrinsically ethically flawed. Crucially, our claim is that imaginings are intrinsically ethically flawed when oppressive, where this is understood as depending on the socio-historical context in which an imagining is realized.

Presented at the University of Leeds’ ‘Race & Aesthetics’ conference at the Leeds Art Gallery (May 2015), the Seminario de Trabajo en Curso at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM (Feb 2017), the Work in Progress seminar at Yale-NUS, Singapore (Oct 2017), and the XII Inter-University Workshop on Mind, Art and Morality: ‘Language and Power’ at the University of Barcelona (May 2018), the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics (2019), the European Society for Aesthetics (2019), the American Society for Aesthetics (2019), Auburn University’s Aesthetics Forum (2021), and the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Georgia. (2021),


Personification and Objectification

If objectifying a person consists, roughly, in treating a person as an object, then one can understand personification as the converse of this: treating an object as a person. Numerous scholars have connected the two notions. The recurring idea is that personification may entail objectification and therefore share in the latter’s ethical difficulties. This idea is defended by various feminist philosophers who focus on how the connection manifests in male, heterosexual consumption of pornography. In this paper, I schematize the only two live arguments for this connection—the ‘ontological argument’ and its successor, the ‘presupposition argument’, as I call them—and show why each fails. Finally, I show how one might try to revive the second of these arguments, before arguing that it and any argument of the same form must fail. I conclude that, absent a wholly novel argument, there is no such connection and so personification as such is ethically okay.


Simple Pleasures (with Nick Wiltsher)

We examine the work of ‘sybarites’ (principally Keren Gorodeisky) and their attempt to put pleasure at the centre of aesthetic appreciation and evaluation.


Art and Ethical Value (with Anne Eaton; commissioned for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Gives an historical and thematic overview of the debate about the relevance of ethical to aesthetic value in art and surrounding controversies.

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