Skip to main content

Uniqueness in Art and Morals

  • T. E. Wilkerson (a1)

1. There is an important argument which can be traced back to Kant's second and third Critiques, and which has been defended by a number of distinguished modern philosophers.1 It goes as follows. Moral judgments are universalizable; that is, I am logically committed to making the same moral judgment about all relevantly similar cases. If I refuse to make the same moral judgment about two relevantly similar cases, then either I believe that they are relevantly different, or I have changed my moral views between examining the first case and examining the second, or I am simply irrational and not a proper subject for discussion. In contrast, however, aesthetic judgments are not universalizable; works of art are necessarily unique. If I say that a painting is aesthetically pleasing or successful or important or striking or whatever, I am not committed to making the same judgment about any relevantly similar work. Occasionally no doubt I might make the same judgment about a relevantly similar work, but I am in no way logically committed to doing so. Indeed in certain cases—the cases which are the topic of this paper—I am logically committed to making an entirely different aesthetic judgment of a relevantly similar work. Since works of art are necessarily unique, copies, fakes, forgeries, pastiches and ‘works in the style of …’, however plausible, however skilful, however close to the original, can never have the same aesthetic merit. Even if my Athena print of a Canaletto were qualitatively identical with the original, it could not have the same aesthetic merit. Even if a modern symphony reproduced perfectly the style of Mozart and even if it were in general of comparable musical quality, it could not have the same aesthetic merit as (most of) the forty-one originals.

Hide All

1 Meager E. G. R., ‘The Uniqueness of a Work of Art’, PAS (1958–1959); N. Goodman, Languages of Art, 2nd edn (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1976), Ch. III; Strawson P. F., ‘Aesthetic Appraisal’, Oxford Review (Michaelmas, 1966);S. Hampshire, ‘Logic and Appreciation’ in Aesthetics and Language, Elton (ed.)(OxfordBasil Blackwell, 1954).

2 Goodman, op. cit. 113–122.

3 ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, in Labyrinths (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970).

4 Austin J. L., ‘A Plea for Excuses’, Philosophical Papers (Oxford University Press, 1961), 131.

5 I am grateful to Robert Black for helping me to clarify the thoughts that follow.

6 Wölfflin H., Classic Art, 2nd edn (London: Phaidon, 1953), 3: ‘At the beginning of Italian painting stands Giotto; he it was who loosened the tongue of art’.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 21 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 125 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.