Joseph Brodsky and the Aesthetic Origins of Ethics

The European Legacy 28 (8):837-851 (2023)
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In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1987, the Russian-born American poet Joseph Brodsky argued that aesthetics is the mother of ethics. However, there is an ambiguity in his use of the term aesthetics. In the first part of this article, I distinguish between Brodsky’s narrow use of aesthetics, which refers to problems of beauty, and the broader sense, which refers to the cognitive function of sensibility and feeling. I then suggest that good sense can be made of the claim about the origins of ethics only if we employ the broader sense of aesthetics. The second part draws on examples from Brodsky and the American poet Jorie Graham to illustrate the ways in which the feelings generated by human sensuous receptivity transform the world from a meaningless physical system into meaningful sets of life-valuable relationships. The third part sharpens this conclusion by considering the conditions under which the world can appear to be meaningless. In the final section I link Brodsky’s poetic responsiveness to the world to John McMurtry’s philosophical analysis of “the felt side of being.” Poetic evocation and philosophical argument are two approaches to the same problem which, when brought together, provide a comprehensive explanation of why aesthetics is the mother of ethics.



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Jeff Noonan
University of Windsor

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Critique of Practical Reason.T. D. Weldon, Immanuel Kant & Lewis White Beck - 1949 - Philosophical Review 58 (6):625.
There Are No Purely Aesthetic Obligations.John Dyck - 2021 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 102 (4):592-612.
Materialist ethics and life-value.Jeff Noonan - 2012 - Montreal: McGill Queens university press.

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