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Department of Philosophy

Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics

Bringing philosophers working on art and beauty together with those interested in morality and in politics provides an exciting opportunity for reevaluating value. Aesthetics, ethics, and politics are areas in which value concepts play a constitutive role. In all these areas we are concerned with what is good, beautiful, worthwhile, right, and fitting. Whenever we talk in value-terms, there are philosophical questions to be answered, about the relation between the normative and the descriptive, and so there are many opportunities for us to learn from each others' work.


Professor Geoffrey Scarre - Utilitarianism, death, forgiveness and evil, J. S. Mill

Staff Members

Dr Andrew Cooper - Aesthetics, Kant, philosophy of biology, post-Kantian Idealism

Dr Clare MacCumhaill - Aesthetics and perception, especially the nature of visual representation, aesthetic emotion and metacognitive feeling.

Professor Andy Hamilton - Aesthetics, especially Kant and Adorno; aesthetics of music especially improvisation; Wittgenstein; political philosophy especially the relation of liberalism and conservatism, self-consciousness

Dr Andreas Pantazatos - Reasons for moral action, cultural heritage

Dr Francis Olley Peason - interaction between normative issues and metaphysics

Dr Benedict Smith - Phenomenology of depression, phenomenology and moral particularism

Dr Rachael Wiseman - Philosophy of action and ethics, Elizabeth Anscombe, 20th Century virtue ethics, integrity

Professor Alison Wylie - Philosophy of the social and historical sciences, specifically archaeology, and feminist philosophy of science

View our Post-Graduate Members here

Recent Research Projects


Principle Investigator: Dr Rachael Wiseman

The UK funding landscape for the arts in Britain now requires those fundraising for the arts to develop new strategies to attract private funding in a highly competitive ‘market’. At the same time, giving has been professionalized, with the ‘effective altruism’ movement urging potential donors to approach a gift as they would an investment and to require evidence of effectiveness and efficiency. Together this represents a profound shift in the way that we conceptualize the nature of philanthropy (love of humanity) and the value of the arts. The university and arts sectors have not given enough space to reflecting on this change and, in particular, its effect on how early career researchers and artists think about their work and its value. With Wunderbar arts this project will establish a new 'fundraising foundation' as a creative research space —- a piece of live art-cum-philosophy —- to explore the ethics of asking for and giving money. Workshops will invite those on both sides of the arts funding relationship to explore the perils and possibilities of giving and receiving money.This work is funded through a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award.

(IN PARENTHESIS) (2016–2018)

Principal Investigator: Clare MacCumhaill

The history of twentieth-century philosophy is still being written. This project will ensure that the work of a remarkable group of women philosophers -- Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot -- is at the centre of that history. Combining archival work, reading groups, interviews, and philosophical research, we are arguing that these women represent a distinctive philosophical school, whose methods and insights are of deep relevant today.

This project is funded by a 2 year 'Small Research Grant' from the British Academy. It will provide support for a research assistant.

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Principle Investigator: Professor Andy Hamilton

This research aims to challenge the received view that improvisation in musical performance is a kind of instant composition, with lower artistic status than composition. Alternative approaches to thinking about the topic will be considered, including those considering the aesthetic value of spontaneity and energised performance.

This project involves collaboration with Sage Gateshead and international jazz musicians and critics.

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Principle Investigator: Dr Rachael Wiseman

Portraits of Integrity is an online archive. Scholars have contributed ‘Portraits’ of individuals whose life or work can help us to understand what integrity is and why it matters. Each ‘Portrait’ consists of an essay introduction, selected readings, and a 15-minute lecture, available as an audio download.

This project was started through British Academy Small Grant.

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Principle Investigator: Dr. Elisabeth Schellekens

This project is the first of its kind in the UK to bring together philosophers, archaeologists, and museum and heritage practitioners to focus on the relation between ethics and aesthetics, and to explore how this relation shapes our understanding and practice of archaeological stewardship.

The project was funded by an AHRC grant and is a joint research project between Durham University’s Philosophy and Archaeology Departments.

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Recent Books

Simon James, Environmental Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity)

Climate change, habitat loss, rising extinction rates - such problems call for more than just new policies and practices. They raise fundamental questions about the world and our place in it. What, for instance, is the natural world? Do we humans belong to it? Which parts of it are we morally obliged to protect?

Drawing on an exceptionally wide range of sources, from virtue ethics to Buddhism, leading environmental philosopher Simon P. James sets out to answer these vitally important questions. The book begins with a discussion of animal minds, before moving on to explore our moral relations with non-human organisms, ecosystems and the earth as a whole. James then considers environmental aesthetics, humanity's place in the natural world and the question of what it means to be wild. In the concluding chapter, he applies his findings to the topic of global climate change, building a strong moral case for urgent action.

This accessible, entertainingly written book will be essential reading for students of the environment across the humanities and social sciences. It will, moreover, be an ideal guide for anyone keen to deepen their understanding of environmental issues.

Geoffrey Scarre (ed.) The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Aging (Palgrave Macmillan)

This handbook presents the major philosophical perspectives on the nature, prospects, problems and social context of age and aging in an era of dramatically increasing life-expectancy. Drawing on the latest research in gerontology, medicine and the social sciences, its twenty-seven chapters examine our intuitions and common sense beliefs about the meaning of aging to confront topics such as the experience and existential character of old age, aging in different philosophical and religious traditions, the place of the elderly in contemporary society and the moral rights and responsibilities of the old. This book offers innovative and cutting-edge research that will help to determine the parameters of the philosophy of aging for years to come.

The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Aging is an essential resource for scholars, researchers and advanced students in moral and political philosophy, bioethics, phenomenology, narrative studies and philosophy of economics. It is also an important tool for researchers and professionals in gerontology, health care, psychology, sociology and population studies.

David Cooper - Sunlight on the Sea: Reflecting on Reflections

Myth and religion, poetry and prose, painting and music attest to the fascination of reflections of the sun on the surface of the sea. For D.H. Lawrence, Henri Matisse and many others, the experience of sunlight on the sea gives vigour and vitality to our lives. This short book is one philosopher's enquiry into the significance of this experience, an attempt to articulate the meaning of an experience that many people both need and cherish. The starting point is the undeniable beauty of glittering reflections on the sea, the most perfect of all beauties, according to Arthur Schopenhauer. Inspiration is then drawn from ancient traditions of thought - Chinese, Greek, Indian - that emphasised the unity of beauty, goodness and truth. The question addressed is what the beauty we find in sunlight on water shows about our understanding of the good life and of the way of things. In some chapters, a parallel question is asked, by way of counterpoint, about the significance of a contrasting kind of beauty - the shadowy and subdued beauty that has been especially appreciated in Japanese culture. In the glistening surface of a sunlit sea, the author argues, there is a metaphor for and an expression of aspects of the good life - happiness, spontaneity and intimacy with nature. In looking at this surface, we have a glimpse of how we would want our relationship to the world to be. But reflections of the sun in water are also a metaphor for or an epiphany of reality. This is the world as it is prior to being subjected to human conceptual schemes and purposes. It is the world as an integrated whole of experience - a quicksilver, soft-edged, ephemeral realm whose source is a mystery. In the swirling, ever-changing and ever-merging reflections on the surface of a sea whose depths are invisible to us, there is a symbol of the way of things, of what Chinese thinkers called the Dao. This book is an exercise in phenomenology: its aim is to expose the meaning of a familiar experience of beauty. The author shows how this experience, as expressive of the good and the true, is - in a sense deeper, perhaps, than Lawrence and Matisse intended - life-enhancing. Whether or not the book succeeds in its aim will be judged by people who, in the words of one travel writer, can find 'no escape from the mirror-like expanse' of a gleaming sea: it is an experience that follows them about like an 'all-pervading, inevitable melody'.

Aesthetics Reading Group