The Importance of the Aesthetic


The misuse of notional objectivity is so obvious as to be banal to describe.“

Andrew Bowie Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy

Part 1

There is a lack of healthy suspicion in the process of myth busting on the part of many prominent educators to warrant too much faith that they do not replicate the failures they wish to correct; a surprising lack of recognition of the tensions in modern philosophy on the limits of truth and cognitive thought.

In this blog I consider how Adorno sheds lights on the limits of rationality and why the aesthetic is an important idea in illuminating the limits purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence. To do this I am drawing on the work of Andrew Bowie in Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy. In some sense this is a comment on the recent discussion around traditional and progressive approaches to teaching – though I don’t try to define either.

It turns out (for those who don’t want to read the whole blog) that reason learns from music. Music and the aesthetic are central to a fuller understanding of cognition and reason. Music is far from marginal or something that lurks in the shadow of reason – indeed we come to a fuller understanding of reason through understanding  why the experience of the aesthetic is important.

It is unfortunate that those in education who defend the rational, logical and the unfolding of truth do so in a way that exercises power over the Other. Reason is used again as a way to reinforce a narrow conception of truth; seeking to correct the delusions of the teaching masses and rescue them from their own naïve understandings. Again and again the Western canon is “defended” – sometimes with a knowledgeable and kind Gatekeeper or sometimes because it is just too good to be left out. The neo-traditional teacher reveres knowledge – however it needs to be the right kind of knowledge, from the right kind of people.


The fetishizing of a particular kind of knowledge has lead to a lack of respect for the people who need powerful knowledge. The exclusionary forces of the past and present are downplayed, or ignored, in favour of a more liberal vision of our common human condition. The way power has worked to withhold many voices from the canon is held in secondary concern –indeed, if at all:

The classics from the past have been around for centuries, and have influenced countless authors who came later. If give our pupils a familiarity with these, they will have a richer understanding of any contemporary literature they choose to read. But when we are making the choice, we should be focusing on the older stuff. It’s just more important. “ Anthony Radice

There is a lack of respect for the symbolic resources of everyday common cultures. It is as if the canon of Great European Art allows access to a depth of feeling and wisdom unavailable from common culture. It is argued that we have restricted access to the canon for too long – however instead of consolidating the canon (a task which – as we shall see in part 2 – is really a redundant futility) we should work harder to promote discussion and understanding of the previously neglected powerful knowledge that comes from diverse groups of people and their experiences.

In everyday life we live with contradictory and often unresolved feelings and ideas about a wide range of issues and beliefs. We need an approach to understanding our experiences and judgments that is able to hold onto contradictions without necessarily resolving them – this is something the aesthetic is able to offer.

In believing the purpose of education should be to make us cleverer we restrict what counts as knowledge and ways of knowing. We need a view of language and knowledge that takes us from privileging the syntactic and discursive to acknowledging the importance of expression and feeling as part of the way we make sense of education and ourselves.

It is difficult to see how music makes you cleverer.   In this view of knowledge music makes no contribution to the purpose of education and would seem to be a distraction at best. This only follows if the conceptions of knowledge you have is one that is able to discount the importance of feelings, emotions and ignore an understanding of how life is enriched by the Arts. However, we all know those moments when listening to music we are somehow struck with a sense of beauty, sadness and joy that we cannot explain. The beauty, fragility and complexity of life are held in sharp relief in our aesthetic experiences.

In “Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy” Andrew Bowie argues that one of Adorno’s strengths (he has many idiosyncrasies) was in recognizing the arts fulfill a function that can’t be explained by conceptual reason. If we could explain the whole truth about art – through say philosophy or close criticism – we no longer need it. Indeed instead of marginalizing the arts because it does not improve our cognitive abilities we need to reclaim what Art tells us about the nature of cognition.

That art matters – despite the efforts to marginalize its importance – is without doubt.   It matters as it sheds light on who we are – it gives meaning in ways that no other way of being is able to. We do not spend a day without proclaiming how great this film was or how terrible that TV program was or how amazing these pieces of music are.

We cannot exhaustively describe Arts importance. The problem of Art highlights that any perspective that reduces things to the purely cognitive is not really a perspective that is going to shed much explanatory light on who we are and how we know. Andrew Bowie argues the constant desire to fix meaning and the nature of reality   – the desire to create an epistemological theory that gets to grips with reality – is really a symptom of the lack of use purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence.

Art gives voice to what is not known, to the other, to the neglected and marginal – to things that might be. This is its power – it offers hope because it goes beyond “what is” and is able to articulate a sense of what might be. A profound aesthetic experience provides knowledge of a world beyond what we know. Art can shed light on experiences that have been previously neglected by the official and accepted discourses. Andrew Bowie argues that Adorno suggests the need to give suffering a voice is a condition of all truth. The aesthetic because it articulates a sense of the unknown is vital to a concept of reason – there are some things that lie outside of reasons grasp. The aesthetic is essential in holding reason to account. The lack of inherent objectivity means it can be a source of fresh insight – it is reminder that reason may not be able to fully aware of all aspects of experience. We need to focus on our blindness not our rightness.


Bowie shows that what we share is this sense that negotiating differences are rooted in our most fundamental responses to the world – this is the importance of the aesthetic.


The limits of objective rationality in schools are obvious. The audit culture is a well-known issue leading to many SLT devising lengthy and intricate quality assurance procedures valuing the quantitative over the qualitative. Learning is somehow separated out into separate components and then this learning is counted and measured. At the same time what cannot be counted is relegated to the realm of the subjective. For example these three blogs are really useful in exploring the limitations of books looks and highlighting the issues of quality assurrance:

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The bureaucratic standardization of practices in institutions can destroy patterns of trust and good-will developed in a particular context over time. These patterns are what enable people to make complex judgments involving factors which often can only be analytically separated at the expense of what constitutes their real substance.”   (Andrew Bowie)


However we see in the aesthetic a different kind of understanding. Adorno is at pains to point out that the aesthetic whilst involving the subjective – this subjectivity is grounded in a kind of objectivity due to its being a part of the wider ways in which we make sense of the world – a part of our shared cultural understanding.


In our music lessons we come across people every day who recognize the importance of the aesthetic – they are negotiating the differences and complexities of the world and trying to make sense of it. Young people have a great deal of investment in popular music – music that engages with the complexities and contradictions of modern life. Young people understand that knowledge of the world is not limited to what can be understood cognitively and recognize the importance of expression and feeling in music.

Our challenge as music teachers is to work with young people who are coming to grips with the aesthetic and allow them to work with models and songs that are beginning to speak to them. The challenge is to find ways to allow students: “to give suffering a voice.”

To recognize that in music we offer the chance for alternative stories and alternative visions of beauty. This can’t come from the canon – but as I argue in part two – popular music and our common cultural symbolic materials offer young people a chance to think through the contractions of life in ways that are more useful than attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the classical canon.


As teachers we need to resist the claims that the purpose of education is to make you cleverer – if that means there is no place for contradiction, emotion, feelings and difference. Our understanding of the world is severely diminished without the aesthetic.


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