The best philosophy books that surveys the arts

Noël Carroll Author Of Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction
By Noël Carroll

Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy, specializing in the philosophy of art at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. When I was a practicing critic, notably of cinema, I backed into philosophy insofar as being a practitioner forced me to ask abstract questions about what I was doing. I have written over fifteen books as well as five documentaries. I am also a former Guggenheim fellow. 

I wrote...

Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction

By Noël Carroll,

Book cover of Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction

What is my book about?

Philosophy of Art is a textbook for undergraduates and an introduction for general readers who are interested in the topic of philosophical aesthetics. It introduces the techniques of analytic philosophy as well as key topics such as the representational theory of art, the expression theory, formalism, neo-formalism, aesthetic theories of art, neo-Wittgensteinism, and the Institutional Theory of Art, together with historical approaches to the nature of art.

Throughout, abstract philosophical theories are illustrated by examples of both traditional and contemporary art including frequent references to the avant-garde. Enriching the reader's understanding of art and fostering her appreciation of art.

The books I picked & why

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By Aristotle, Joe Sachs (translator),

Book cover of Poetics

Why this book?

This book is frequently thought to be a response to Plato’s attack on poetry where Plato charges that poets lack knowledge and that poetry incites the emotions. Aristotle, Plato’s student, argues against his mentor that poets do have knowledge – specifically knowledge of human behavior – and that tragedy refines the emotions rather than mindlessly arousing them. The book is also an insightful treatise on narrative, one that still influences the authors of script-writing manuals today.


By Clive Bell,

Book cover of Art

Why this book?

This book was instrumental in introducing the English-speaking world to Modern Art. As criticism, it taught readers how to appreciate Neo-Impressionism. But it was also a seminal contribution to Anglo-American philosophy. By demanding an answer to the question “What is Art?” Bell set the agenda for subsequent philosophers who sought to develop a definition of art in response. Bell’s own answer is that something is art if and only if it possesses significant form which itself is the cause of aesthetic emotions. Bell’s emphasis on significant form earned him a reputation as one of the foremost Philosophical Formalists.

Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism

By Monroe Beardsley,

Book cover of Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism

Why this book?

Originally published in 1958 as a textbook, when Aesthetics was updated, it was recognized as the “summa” of the aesthetic theory of art. This is the view that something is art just in case it is made with the intention to afford a certain magnitude of aesthetic experience. Because of his emphasis on aesthetic experience, Beardsley defended the notion of the autonomy of art – the idea that art is essentially independent of all other social practices. Using this lens, Beardsley explores an impressive range of topics including literature, fiction, pictorial representation, criticism, and interpretation.

Languages of Art

By Nelson Goodman,

Book cover of Languages of Art

Why this book?

Because of his prior reputation as a metaphysician and epistemologist, when Nelson Goodman turned his attention to the philosophy of art, he lent unprecedented prestige to aesthetics. In his book, Goodman treats art as a matter of symbol systems whose major structures include representation, exemplification, and expression. Given his emphasis on symbolism, Goodman regarded artistic projects, like picturing, as conventional and he maintained that our conviction of the realism of pictorial representations was merely an affair of our habituation to various styles. Languages of Art is a book noteworthy for its bold and bracing literary style.

After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History

By Arthur C Danto,

Book cover of After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History

Why this book?

This book is an amazing combination of the philosophy of art, the philosophy of art history, and art criticism. The late Arthur Danto was not only a distinguished philosopher but also an award-winning art critic. In this book, Danto tracks the decline and fall of Modernism (which he describes as “the end of art”) and the advent of our present artistic moment which can be critically characterized as an era of post-historical pluralism. Danto, following GFW Hegel, proposes a partial definition of the artwork as an embodied meaning – thereby addressing the challenge to say what art is -- as it was posed by Clive Bell.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in philosophy, aesthetics, and art?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about philosophy, aesthetics, and art.

Philosophy Explore 327 books about philosophy
Aesthetics Explore 36 books about aesthetics
Art Explore 103 books about art

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings, and Dante's Inferno if you like this list.