Aesthetics: The Approach from Social Anthropology

Robert Layton

in The Aesthetic Mind

Published in print October 2011 | ISBN: 9780199691517
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731815 | DOI:
Aesthetics: The Approach from Social Anthropology

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The paper briefly reviews the scope of anthropological approaches to the cross-cultural study of aesthetics and beauty, and the ways in which anthropological approaches differ from those offered by evolutionary biology or psychology. The distinction between explanation and understanding is introduced, together with Tinbergen’s classification of types of explanation into causes, functions and history. Evidence for and against the universality of human appreciation of beauty is discussed. The relevance of evolutionary explanations for the origin of aesthetics to explaining its current social functions is assessed, together with archaeological evidence for the antiquity of aesthetic expression. I conclude that, while there is little doubt that aesthetic appreciation of symmetry is grounded in our evolved psychology, the socially-constructed environment plays a vital, perhaps pre-eminent role in determining the adaptiveness of alternative strategies for the display of artistic skills, and that the appreciation of beauty is now experienced in many contexts beyond those in which it plausibly evolved.

Keywords: cross-cultural studies; symmetry; socially-constructed environments; Tinbergen

Chapter.  6879 words. 

Subjects: Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

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