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Preface to the First Edition

Encyclopedia of Aesthetics

Preface to the First Edition

Aesthetics is uniquely situated to serve as a meeting place for numerous academic disciplines and cultural traditions. While it is a single branch of philosophy concerned with art, aesthetics is also a part of other disciplines—such as art history, literary theory, law, sociology—that reflect equally, if differently, about art in its natural and cultural contexts. At the same time, aesthetics is an eighteenth-century European development that has not been duplicated anywhere else. Of course, all other cultures around the world have their own “art,” and most also have traditions of reflecting philosophically about it. To the extent that they have developed such reflection, whatever they have chosen to call it, these cultures are engaged in a practice related to Western aesthetics. So aesthetics is, in academic terms, both singular and general, and, in cultural terms, both local and global. To capture these multiple dimensions, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics has been created using a definition of aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture, and nature.”

The purpose of this encyclopedia is to contribute to a discursive public sphere in which people representing the disciplines and traditions engaged in aesthetics will be able to articulate their perspectives on the field, thereby fostering dialogue and, where possible, constructing common ground without imposing consensus. To this end, the Encyclopedia, which is the first English-language reference work on this scale devoted to aesthetics, offers a combination of historical reference material and critical discussions of contemporary aesthetics intended for general readers and experts alike.

History of Aesthetics

The term aesthetics is derived from the ancient Greek word aisthesis (also spelled aesthesis), which means perception or sensation. In its original usage, the word was related to perceptual or sensory knowledge, usually in contrast to conceptual or rational knowledge, but had little or no specific relevance to art. The initial lack of connection between aesthetics and art reflects the fact that, at the time, there was no word for what Westerners now regard as art; the Greek word for art, techne, is closer to the English word craft. Of course, the philosophy of art existed in Plato and Aristotle’s age, just as there was Greek “art.” Nevertheless, aesthetics did not become connected to art until the eighteenth century. Developments within art and philosophy—as well as within other disciplines concerned with art—account for the eventual link between aesthetics and art that is the historical subject of this encyclopedia.

From the classical era to the Middle Ages, reflection on art developed through the work of philosophers such as Augustine, Plotinus, Aquinas, and others. During the Renaissance, when art flourished in unparalleled ways, such reflection also experienced a revival as many classical aesthetic ideas were rediscovered and developed in new directions. What was most common during these periods, however, were treatises about individual arts, such as painting, music, or poetry, rather than any theory about art in general. There was also considerable discussion about whether it was possible to distinguish art from craft. Finally, when people wrote about the arts, they typically did so without philosophically analyzing the principles of criticism they were implicitly invoking. In short, aesthetics proper had not yet emerged.

All of this changed in the eighteenth century, mostly in France, Germany, and Great Britain. There was a historical coincidence between a newfound tendency on the part of writers to generalize about the arts and a heightened concern in philosophy for sensory knowledge independent of logical knowledge. The distinction of types of knowledge, inspired in part by the birth of modern science based on empiricism, introduced aesthetics into philosophy; but, following the lead of Alexander Baumgarten, aesthetics still had little to do with art. This was a strange development indeed in the inaugural century of aesthetics: those beginning to generalize about art did not use the term aesthetics, while those practicing aesthetics were not principally interested in art. It was not until Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) that these two tendencies were systematically united, setting the agenda for aesthetics ever since.

Although this union was unquestionably an important step in the early and subsequent history of aesthetics, overemphasis on it tends to obscure an equally important dimension of this history, which is central to the rationale for the Encyclopedia. Although it is true that aesthetics emerged in the eighteenth century within philosophy, this would not have been possible without developments in art and cultural criticism that had been evolving since at least the Renaissance. Critics—whether philosophers, poets, or writers—began writing about art in general rather than just about the individual arts. Some compared the different arts, as was the case in the “Ut pictura poesis” (“as a painting, so a poem”) tradition, whereas others argued that each art form could be properly understood only on individual terms: painting is independent of poetry, which is independent of music, and so on. In its first century, aesthetics was thus marked by a fundamental philosophical disagreement about whether generalizing about art was an advancement in the understanding of the arts. It is this disagreement, rather than just the tendency toward generalizations, that separated Western aesthetics in the eighteenth century from its prior history as well as from other cultural traditions.

In that same period, the individual arts in Europe were becoming more accessible to the public than they had ever been before, for they were no longer so closely tied to religion and politics once the church and monarchy ceased being the exclusive patrons of the arts. There was, in short, a secularization and democratization of the arts and culture in the eighteenth century that contributed to the formation of a cultural public sphere. Criticism was the term most widely used to characterize discussion about the arts and culture; in fact, the term critique, which Kant transformed in his Critique of Pure Reason, began in part as the German translation of the English word criticism. This transformation marks the birth of aesthetics as a part of philosophy, but it also highlights the fact that philosophical aesthetics emerged out of a broader cultural context.

From its inception until the present, aesthetics has continued to be distinguished by both its philosophical and cultural roles, even though some theorists have at times attempted to restrict aesthetics to just one of its roles. Moreover, the fact that aesthetics has always had these dual roles has made the present encyclopedia both possible and necessary: possible, because the entries here could not have been written unless there were people in various disciplines outside of philosophy writing philosophically about art, culture, and nature; and necessary, because aesthetics remains incomplete if its cultural role is not developed. The goal of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics is to trace the genealogy of aesthetics in such a way as to integrate these two roles.

The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics has been created, and may now be received, in a skeptical environment. It is important to address this skepticism here because it is based on a misconception of aesthetics that the Encyclopedia aims to correct in an effort to revitalize the field.

Many people concerned with art and culture today seem to want to distance themselves from aesthetics. Ask students or general readers what aesthetics is, and most will say that it has something to do with beauty (an impression reinforced by the colloquial use of aesthetic to mean “beautiful”) and that it is a thing of the past. Artists, as a group, rarely express any more interest in aesthetics than Barnett Newman did when he remarked that aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds. Art historians and anthropologists typically do not identify with aesthetics either, unless their research involves art created in periods when aesthetics was still considered relevant. Finally, others involved with contemporary art—critics, legal theorists, sociologists—also do not generally see themselves as concerned with aesthetics, since they regard it as part of philosophy rather than of their own fields.

Why do these diverse groups of people distance themselves from aesthetics, even though they all are involved with art and culture? What they typically object to is the idea that art can be understood according to a set of universal principles about its immutable properties; the term aesthetics suggests this idea to them. It is seen as a branch of philosophy that effectively died once modern art began to challenge the classical view of art as the imitation, often in the guise of beauty, of the universal qualities of nature or reality. So aesthetics is thereby relegated to the history of art and philosophy prior to modernism.

Ask contemporary aestheticians what they do, however, and they are likely to respond that aesthetics is the philosophical analysis of the beliefs, concepts, and theories implicit in the creation, experience, interpretation, or critique of art. It would be unusual for them to include beauty as one of their major research topics; they talk more often about the problems of meaning or representation in connection with works of art. Moreover, most aestheticians—both analytic (Anglo-American) and continental (European, exclusive of Great Britain) alike—would agree that there are no universal properties of art and that art can be defined, if at all, only in historical (if still philosophical) terms. In fact, both analytic and continental aesthetics in the last fifty years have been dominated by antiessentialism: the view either that art has no essence or that it is impossible for us to ascertain what its essence is. This means that nearly all contemporary aestheticians are equally critical of the idea of aesthetics that is rejected by nonphilosophers.

Moreover, not only is it a misconception to identify contemporary aesthetics with the universalist idea of aesthetics, the history of aesthetics is replete with critiques of that same idea and alternatives to it. These critiques were evident even in the eighteenth century. For example, although there was considerable discussion of beauty at that time, aesthetics emerged only once beauty lost its status as an objective or transcendental property, which it virtually had since Plato. Modern philosophers argued that beauty is not a property of objects (e.g., works of art) experienced or judged as beautiful; rather, it is a relational property between subjects and objects. So aesthetics began, in part, with the following problem: How is it possible to speak with any objectivity about matters of taste if beauty is subjective? The question of the universality of taste arose in this same context. Whereas some philosophers argued that taste is universal despite being subjective, others were doubtful that universality was possible again after the subjective turn in our understanding of beauty. This debate was not resolved at the time, nor has it been since. This means, however, that the conventional view of aesthetics held by its critics (and some of its supporters) is as imprecise relative to the history of aesthetics as it is to its present state. So the skepticism about aesthetics is best addressed by reevaluating the meaning and history of aesthetics; such reevaluation is what this encyclopedia offers.

There is also a prevailing skepticism today about encyclopedias that should be discussed here as well. One of the marks of our present age, which is typically characterized as postmodern, is a skepticism toward any claims about philosophical systems or historical grand narratives (i.e., ones that emphasize the unity and ultimate goal of historical development). Many people today believe that, in principle, such systems are incomplete and all historical narratives impose a false unity while they exclude certain cultures’ perspectives. In the interest of pluralism, we are encouraged to abandon any and all systems and narratives. The publication of an encyclopedia, especially one that gives philosophy a central role, may seem to violate these postmodern injunctions, though only if it is thought to venture a narrative or system of aesthetics. Because of this attitude, it was even suggested that we exclude the word “encyclopedia” from the title of this work.

Our response to this skepticism was to incorporate the contemporary doubts about the encyclopedia into its very structure. This has been achieved in various ways, principally by including the following among the entries themselves: (1) critiques of aesthetics; (2) discussions of postmodernism; (3) composite (multi-article) entries so topics could be analyzed from several perspectives; and (4) representations of virtually all the disciplines involved with art and culture, even though people in these fields may not see themselves as being engaged in aesthetics. In none of these cases was any effort made to shape a system or a grand narrative of aesthetics. Efforts were made to be comprehensive, however, though here comprehensive means as complete a representation as possible of all the competing ideas about aesthetics.

General Structure of the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia includes more than six hundred essays, alphabetically arranged, on approximately four hundred individuals, concepts, periods, theories, issues, and movements in the history of aesthetics. The entries range from the most ancient aesthetic traditions around the world to the Greco-Roman era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism, up to the present. The central historical focus, however, is the genealogy of Western aesthetics from its inception in the early eighteenth century in Europe to the present. How was the Western understanding of art and culture transformed during that period? How has it developed since then? What is its present status? Specifically, how have key aesthetic concepts and issues—such as appropriation, autonomy, beauty, genius, iconology, ideology, metaphor, originality, semiotics, sexuality, taste, and truth—evolved?

The entries in the Encyclopedia have been written by more than five hundred philosophers, art historians, literary theorists, psychologists, feminist theorists, legal theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others who reflect critically on art, culture, and nature. The range of contributors is important because of the interdisciplinary nature of aesthetics, both now and throughout its history. For example, one cannot understand Romanticism and appreciate its aesthetic significance without studying what it means in philosophical and literary terms as well as how it manifested itself differently in the visual arts and in music. There are numerous topics of such conceptual or historical complexity in the Encyclopedia that can be fully understood only if they are approached through multiple disciplines.

The goal, however, is not to impose or legitimate any single discipline’s way of understanding aesthetics. Philosophy, for example, certainly occupies a central position in the Encyclopedia; its important task is to clarify the terms, principles, concepts, and theories employed by the disciplines (including philosophy) engaged in aesthetics. But philosophy is also just one of many disciplines, evidenced by the fact that a majority of the encyclopedia entries were written by nonphilosophers. Moreover, the purpose of the work is not to resolve the differences among the various disciplines; rather, it is to provide, as a good encyclopedia should, a comprehensive catalog of what these differences are, how they originated, what the disciplines may have in common, and what is at stake in the conflicting views contributors espouse. Our aim has been to provide as much reliable information as we could assemble so that readers can make informed decisions about how best to understand “Beauty,” the “Origins of Aesthetics,” “Popular Culture,” the “Comparative Aesthetics” of the African and Western traditions, “Kant,” or any of the other topics included in the Encyclopedia.

At every moment of its history, aesthetics has been related in complementary and critical ways to the art of its time. So there is considerable discussion in the Encyclopedia of major art periods (e.g., the Renaissance), movements (Modernism), and issues (perspective) in the history of art. Such discussions range from Greco-Roman, Baroque, or Impressionist art to the most contemporary art forms, such as conceptual, installation, or performance art. The focus in these entries is both historical and theoretical so readers will understand what is unique about each art-historical issue and how it has influenced aesthetic theory.

While the aesthetic history and art periodization utilized here are largely Western, comparisons are made throughout the Encyclopedia with non-Western art forms and their distinct aesthetic traditions. Such comparisons are made in two ways: (1) by having overview essays on each of these traditions (e.g., Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Latin American) and, where possible, (2) by integrating non-Western perspectives into discussions of central aesthetic concepts, principles, and issues (e.g., Japanese appreciation of nature). The first measure helps readers to understand these other traditions, which in some cases have greatly influenced their Western counterparts or have been shaped by them. The second measure is important so that non-Western ideas of aesthetics are not isolated from their Western counterparts. The two practices combined serve, in effect, to historicize the tradition of Western aesthetics by demonstrating that it is, after all, just one of many traditions.

The emphasis in the entries on key figures (e.g., Plato, Kant, Heidegger) is theoretical rather than biographical. The contributors explain the subjects’ ideas about aesthetics, while clarifying the historical and conceptual contexts for these ideas. References to clarify these contexts are provided in the bibliographies, along with biographical titles, where possible. In addition to the lengthy entries on major thinkers, there are short (five-hundred-word) entries on some significant but lesser-known figures (e.g., Charles Batteux and Moses Mendelssohn). The aim here is to paint a comprehensive picture of the historical background of modern and contemporary aesthetics.

Coverage of many central individuals and concepts in aesthetics and most major art forms (e.g., architecture, dance, photography) has been arranged in composite entries, that is, several separate articles arranged under one headword. The rationale for this type of entry is to give voice to: (1) extensive histories of a specific topic (e.g., beauty or landscape) too broad to be handled by one contributor; (2) independent philosophical views of a single central issue (e.g., metaphor or autonomy); (3) individual perspectives on a topic (e.g., historicism) that is important in each of several disciplines (e.g., aesthetics, art history, literary theory); (4) several accounts of an activity (e.g., criticism) that is practiced differently in the particular arts (e.g., music, art, dance); (5) individuals (e.g., Kant) who are central in the history of aesthetics because of their influential accounts of key aesthetic concepts; and (6) other cases where there are significantly diverse aspects or accounts of a single aesthetic issue.

Each composite entry combines conceptual and historical overviews with in-depth analyses of particular issues or ideas. For example, the entry on Immanuel Kant begins with an overview essay explaining who Kant was, what he wrote, and what he wrote particularly on aesthetics. This is followed by essays on Kant’s concepts of beauty, the sublime, and nature; a brief history of Kantian aesthetics; essays on Kant’s reception in art history, on the hermeneutic reading of Kant, and on the feminist critique of Kant; and, finally, an essay on the connection between Kant and Marcel Duchamp in terms of the concept of judgment. The combined essays offer a wide range of interpretations to the general reader and allow those possessing more advanced understanding to pursue the finer points of aesthetics. The contributors of articles in these entries were not asked to discuss each others’ work directly; rather, they were invited to articulate their own positions on the selected issues as clearly and forcefully as possible, knowing that other points of view would be similarly represented in the same entry. (Such representation of diverse perspectives on key issues in aesthetics is what I have referred to as a discursive public sphere.)

Criteria for the Inclusion of Entries

Topics were chosen according to the following general criteria: (1) philosophical or critical significance in the histories of aesthetics, art, or fields related to aesthetics or art; (2) relevance to contemporary aesthetics; and (3) historical or contemporary importance in non-Western cultures. In the entries devoted to particular cultural traditions (e.g., Islamic, Latin American), the contributors were asked to address the following questions: What difference do their sovereign cultural histories make to their conceptions of aesthetics in comparison to their Western counterparts? Do they have unique ways of thinking about aesthetics as well as original art? Does their critical reflection on art and culture provide evidence of a universal aesthetic or, on the contrary, does it confirm the radical historicist’s claim that aesthetics, like art, is fundamentally different in each culture?

The topics of the composite entries were selected (1) because of their significance in the history of aesthetics, or (2) because of ongoing debates among experts in the relevant specialties who represent diverse disciplinary, philosophical, or cultural perspectives. The aim of this structure is to achieve with these entries the comprehensiveness one expects from encyclopedia entries, but also to make the rich variety of ideas about individual aesthetic topics more accessible to one another.

With these criteria in mind, the Encyclopedia has aimed to have historical depth and representative breadth to encompass (1) the key centuries (eighteenth to twentieth) and countries (Germany, France, Great Britain, United States) in the history of Western aesthetics; (2) the different disciplinary perspectives (e.g., philosophy, art history, law, sociology) on the key topics; (3) the various cultures (e.g., African, Indian, Latin American) that have a history of thinking critically on their “art” and culture without necessarily calling such thinking “aesthetics”; (4) many of the arts, traditional and new, that have had a defining impact on aesthetics; (5) various historical and contemporary critiques of aesthetics (e.g., Romanticism, hermeneutics, antiessentialism, feminism); and (6) the few disciplines that have emerged, in part, as the result of critiques of aesthetics (e.g., cultural studies).

There are undoubtedly some missing topics, and there are several reasons for this. In some instances we planned an entry but either could not find a suitable contributor or the contributor was not able to respond in a timely fashion; we considered some additional entries but decided in the end that they were not appropriate, given the overall goals of the Encyclopedia; finally, despite all our efforts to be inclusive and thorough, we regrettably have overlooked certain possible entries. Every encyclopedia has its limitations when it comes to the list of entries; for, as critics are likely to point out, the categorization of entries in an encyclopedia is arbitrary. But the choices and ordering of categories can be intelligible and reasonable nonetheless. We have tried to be comprehensive without being systematic, and we have stated the criteria for the selection of entries as clearly as possible so that readers will know how and why we have made the choices embodied in the Encyclopedia. Readers are asked to remember that the Encyclopedia is intended as the beginning rather than the end of critical discussion about the genealogy and contemporary practice of aesthetics within philosophy and related disciplines.

Editorial Practices

Entries are alphabetically arranged, strictly letter by letter. In order to explain the structure and content of the composite entries, each of them begins with an editorial headnote. Brief headnotes are also occasionally present in cases where the entry comprises a single essay (e.g., “Gaze,” “Theory, History of”) to clarify the topic or offer a rationale for its inclusion for the general reader.

In order to maximize the interconnections among the entries and to guide the reader to related discussion, numerous cross-references have been included throughout the work. These are located within individual articles (mostly at the end of the discussion) as well as in the headnotes to the composite entries. In addition, within the alphabetical order of headwords, there are numerous “blind entries” that provide cross-references to the articles where the subject is discussed. Blind entries are used for alternate spellings and synonyms (e.g., “Ekphrasis. See Ecphrasis”; “Cinema. See Film”) as well as in cases where instead of an independent entry devoted to a subject, there is a significant discussion within another article (“Boas, Franz. See Anthropology and Aesthetics”) or, for broad topics (e.g., painting), spread among several articles. The comprehensive index at the end of Volume 4 provides additional connections among the topics and disciplines for readers interested in further research.

The illustration program is modest if it is compared to art reference works, but generous if compared to reference works in philosophy, which typically have few or no images. We have tried to strike a balance between these extremes. While we could not possibly offer a complete representation of the history of art because this is an encyclopedia of aesthetics, we wanted to make it clear that aesthetics is intimately related to the history of art. At the same time, it is important that we have some imagery so that it does not seem that words are taking the place of art. The relationship between aesthetics and art is a very sensitive issue within aesthetics, as it assuredly is for those who criticize aesthetics for being iconoclastic. The presence of some images here makes it clear that this relationship is open-ended: aesthetic theory is always responding to art rather than supplanting it. The illustrations are also intended to reflect a wide spectrum of different art traditions and cultures (e.g., African, Pre-Columbian, Indian), as well as the historical depth (e.g., Greek, Modern), stylistic breadth (e.g., Gothic, Surrealist), and diversity of art mediums (e.g., sculpture, film) within art.


The Encyclopedia’s passage from concept to reality over the last six years was guided by the intellectual devotion of many people. I cannot thank them all enough, but I will try.

The Encyclopedia was initiated in 1992 by Christopher Collins, now a senior editor at Oxford University Press, when he was at Garland Publishing. Once the Encyclopedia evolved from one to four volumes, it joined Chris at Oxford in 1996. His editorial insight, commitment, and humor have been invaluable throughout. Claude Conyers, editorial director of the Scholarly and Professional Reference Department, secured the Encyclopedia’s move to Oxford and ensured that it was produced in the most professional manner possible. Jeffrey Edelstein, managing editor, carried the work through the often prosaic stages of production, contributing his editorial expertise and, as situations demanded it, his wit. The copy editors at Clarinda Publication Services did an excellent job while being respectful of the contributors. I would especially like to thank Emily Autumn, Clarinda project manager, with whom I worked almost daily for the last nine months. I would also like to thank the indexer, Cynthia Crippen, who has created a detailed index that is vital to the Encyclopedia, as it aids readers in their efforts to discover implicit links among the diverse topics.

Without the dedication and knowledge of all the editorial advisers, who are distinguished in their respective fields, producing the Encyclopedia would have been inconceivable. In particular, I would like to thank Arthur C. Danto, first for recommending me when he was approached by Christopher Collins with the idea for this encyclopedia, and then for providing personal and philosophical support along the way. Daniel Shapiro donated his legal advice to the project as it moved to Oxford; without him, the Encyclopedia would not have moved and, had it not done so, it may never have been completed. Richard Kuhns came by my office on a regular basis to share his erudition and offer his assistance. Mary Mothersill was also a constant source of encouragement, especially as the Encyclopedia was changing publishers. Mark Tansey, an artist, was singularly helpful in thinking about how to make the Encyclopedia useful to practicing artists. Paul Guyer recommended a host of contributors and wrote seven essays himself, adding greatly to the historical depth of the Encyclopedia. Norton Batkin, David Carrier, Susan L. Feagin, Kenneth Frampton, Alexander Nehamas, and Anita Silvers likewise contributed much more than I could have expected of the editorial advisers. Marx Wartofsky, who introduced me to aesthetics in graduate school, was a generous friend and resource before his sudden death in March 1997.

On the suggestion of Oxford, four particular editorial advisers—Ted Cohen, Daniel Herwitz, Salim Kemal, and Stephen Melville—each reviewed more than one hundred essays after they had been read by other advisers or reviewers. The duty of these editors, to whom I am truly indebted, was to help us develop a coherent picture of the Encyclopedia while it was taking shape. This additional editorial process was essential in making sure that the overall goals of the Encyclopedia were clarified and, as much as possible, realized.

The sine qua non of the Encyclopedia, of course, are the contributors who graciously agreed to write articles, knowing that there is often not enough academic recognition for such work. I would like to thank every single one of them, especially those who wrote several articles or who offered their assistance in other ways: Frederick Beiser, Whitney Davis, Ed Dimendberg, Gregg Horowitz, and Christopher Wood. Each contributor will receive a copy of the Encyclopedia as a gesture of our gratitude.

In the last several years, I worked on the Encyclopedia mostly in my office at the Journal of Philosophy at Columbia University. I would like to thank the trustees and editors of the journal—particularly Arthur C. Danto, president of the trustees—for giving the Encyclopedia a home. John Smylie, my editorial assistant at the journal, was also my assistant on the Encyclopedia. His specific responsibility in the last two years was to verify all the bibliographies, a formidable task that he accomplished with great accuracy. Several people helped me to keep pace with the Encyclopedia while they were work-study students or interns at Columbia: Elizabeth Cornwefl, Shauna Grob, Alla Rachkov, Jo Kim, and Kathleya Chotiros—thank you.

Finally, I would like to thank my parents, John and Anita Kelly, for their confidence in me since the project began six years ago, especially during the moments that the Encyclopedia’s future seemed in question. Even as my father lay dying (March 1997), just as the manuscript deadline with Oxford approached, he continued to inquire about the progress of the Encyclopedia. His concern was a true inspiration.

The efforts of all these people have culminated in an encyclopedia that I believe will enable readers to appreciate and develop further the philosophical and cultural conceptions of aesthetics that inspired it.

Michael Kelly

New York & Montauk

April 1998