Symposium on Beauty and Form

January 28-29th, 2016                                                                  Co-Conveners: Northwestern University                                 Thomas Pfau & Vivasvan Soni

The concepts of beauty and form are as old as Western philosophy itself. In Plato, they are the foundation for our love of the good. And yet, by a curious paradox, even though these concepts have been perennial features of the philosophical landscape ever since, we witness with the rise of systematic aesthetics in the eighteenth century their marginalization, denigration and divorce from ethics. Concepts like the sublime, the new and even the zany acquire an unprecedented prestige as the aesthetic concepts associated with modernity, while beauty and form come to be allied with a staid premodern or neoclassical love of order and hierarchy, or else with a bourgeois aesthetic of commercialization and kitsch. However, today, there are signs that a significant reappraisal of this legacy is underway, tied to an intuition that concepts like beauty and form may well be indispensable to humanistic inquiry, and perhaps even urgent remedies for the disorientations of modern life.

Our symposium will feature papers on different aspects of the rich and complex history of aesthetic, ethical and political thought around these concepts, papers which present a detailed conceptual analysis of a particular moment in this history, but also situate those analyses within a longer historical perspective and speak to the most pressing questions about the relevance of these concepts in our present moment. Is there a use, perhaps even a need, for the concepts of beauty and form today? Can they be recuperated for humanistic inquiry after the devastating critiques of the past two centuries? In what ways will these concepts need to be rewritten to take account of the most salient critiques, or should they be abandoned to their fates? Do we only become aware of beauty when it has been irrecuperably lost, and is it only the retrospective glance, the “owl of Minerva,” that brings beauty into view? What, then, of the “promise of happiness” it allows us to glimpse?

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