Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge): Aesthetic reflection and scientific understanding

Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge): Aesthetic reflection and scientific understanding

2nd November 2017 - 4:00 pm, Edinburgh


Scientists routinely speak of the aesthetic merit of theories, proofs and explanations, often regarding the experience of beauty and elegance in science as a motivation for their work and an indication of its truth. But aesthetic judgments in science are as controversial as they are widespread. On one side, aestheticians have worried that statements about the beauty of a theory or the elegance of a proof are merely metaphorical and lack genuine aesthetic status. On the other side, philosophers of science have wondered why aesthetic concerns should play any role in the search for scientific knowledge. I address this two-fold challenge by asking how judgments of beauty could be both aesthetic and relevant for scientific enquiry. I propose an answer inspired by the Kantian idea that aesthetic experience is grounded, at least in part, in the subject’s spontaneous intellectual activities. I argue that relevant aesthetic judgments are grounded in the subject’s awareness of her creative intellectual activities in devising and grasping a theory. And I suggest that judgments of this kind may offer a heuristic tool for scientific enquiry by indicating achievements of understanding.

About the speaker

Angela Breitenbach is a Lecturer in philosophy at King’s College at the University of Cambridge.  Her work includes Kantian conceptions of aesthetics and beauty in science and mathematics, the relationship between laws and unity, causality and causal knowledge, as well as Kantian perspectives on biology and nature, among other things.  As well as being a Fellow at King’s College, she’s also a ProFutura Fellow at CRASSH and a Pro Futura Scientia Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.  She’s recently done a TEDx Talk called “Can theories be beautiful?” which is available on YouTube.

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