Graduate Seminar in Aesthetics

Dr. Cynthia Freeland

Spring 2009




The Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism will be a special issue devoted to the topic of narrative.  The editor for this issue, Noël Carroll, has published discussions of narrative in a variety of contemporary media, such as television and films, but the topic has been alive and debated ever since Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle defined plot as a story with a beginning, middle, and end; philosophers continue to debate the definition of narrative and to provide diverse accounts of why narratives seem to possess a special kind of coherence and explanatory power.


Narrative as a subject might be thought to belong more properly to literature and literary criticism, and indeed, there are many texts addressing the theory of literary narratives (or “narratology”). But narrative has also figured recently in several sub-fields of philosophy besides aesthetics. It makes surprising appearances in philosophy of mind, ethics, and the philosophy of science and history. The notion of narrative has been used to account for the nature of the self and to describe conditions of moral responsibility by philosophers ranging from Daniel Dennett to Alsadair McIntyre, David Velleman, Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur, Marya Schechtman, and others. Many psychologists, such as Jerome Bruner and Oliver Sacks, also endorse narrative accounts of the self. However, there have also been forceful arguments disputing the centrality of narrative in accounting for personal identity, in particular from Derek Parfit and Galen Strawson.


The February, 2009 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism will be on the list of course readings. Other readings will come from journal articles and recent book chapters addressing the nature and importance of narrative. Special emphasis will be placed on the nature and role of narrative in the visual arts (including painting, video, and film), where recent discussions have provided less analysis. Dr. Freeland will present portions of her book in progress Portraits and Persons, addressing how portraits differ from text-based narratives about persons (whether in biographies or autobiographies).


Students will be expected to give a seminar presentation on one of the readings, to write several informal papers on assigned topics from the readings, and to complete a final seminar paper involving further research on a topic covered in the seminar. 


More information on readings will be publicized closer to the time of the course.