Frank Sibley

Frank Sibley
Frank Sibley

Frank Sibley was trained as a philosopher in postwar Oxford. His principal teacher was Gilbert Ryle, who, understandably, had a profound influence on Sibley’s way of doing philosophical analysis—an influence that is as apparent in his last papers as in his first ones.

Sibley must be credited with inaugurating the renaissance in aesthetics and philosophy of art in the English-speaking world after World War II, a renaissance that is still in full cry. He did it in 1959, in an article that, in the years since, has never ceased being discussed and cited in the literature, and, at the time of its appearance, produced a veritable deluge of essays, and even books in response or defense, that completely reinvigorated the discipline.

“Aesthetic Concepts” (1959a), as Sibley titled his inaugural article, dealt, in a surprisingly few pages, with three of the most basic and difficult issues in the discipline: taste, criticism, and the distinction between the aesthetic and nonaesthetic.

aesthetic discrimination - Marlborough Sounds, South Island, New Zealand
aesthetic discrimination

He began, with a sensitive ear for “ordinary language” that was to characterize to the end all of his work in aesthetics, by distinguishing between the kinds of things one says about works of art such as “that a novel has a great number of characters and deals with life in a manufacturing town” or “that a painting uses pale colors, predominantly blues and greens,” and such remarks, in contrast, as “that a poem is tightly knit” or “that a picture lacks balance or has a certain serenity and repose.”

About these different kinds of remarks, Sibley claims, “It would be natural enough to say that the making of judgments such as these [latter ones] requires the exercise of taste, perceptiveness, or sensitivity of aesthetic discrimination or appreciation; one would not say this of my first group”.

Sibley calls the terms that he thinks require a perceptiveness, sensitivity, or taste beyond that of “normal eyes, ears, and intelligence,” aesthetic concepts or terms. And it is the central, most controversial of his claims that aesthetic concepts or terms are, as he puts it, not condition-governed, which is to say, “There are no sufficient conditions, no non-aesthetic features such that the presence of some set or number of them will beyond question logically justify or warrant the application of an aesthetic term”.

warrant the application -  Wei Han Ru 魏晗如
warrant the application

Sibley was, throughout his professional life, reticent to publish because of a deeply ingrained perfectionism. Even though his philosophical reputation stems mainly from the groundbreaking “Aesthetic Concepts,” it is not the only one of his publications to have influenced the field. Particularly worthy of mention are “Aesthetics and the Looks of Things” (1959b) and “Aesthetic and Nonaesthetic” (1965), in both of which Sibley further explores the whole question of aesthetic reason-giving.

As well, Sibley’s work in aesthetics and philosophy of art is now likely to have a renewed influence on the field through the posthumous publication of essays he was in the process of preparing for the press at the time of his death. The range of subjects broached in these essays demonstrates that, to the last, Sibley was at the cutting edge of research and is likely to remain a potent philosophical force for many years to come.
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