The purpose of this introduction is to set out the scope and content of this special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education, which takes Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art as its subject. I begin by delineating the “aesthetic” itself and then identifying the denotation of “aesthetic education” with which the issue's authors are concerned. This is followed by a characterization of “narrative art” that belies my preference for representation rather than art and draws attention to the multiple modes of representation that constitute complex narratives. I next turn to the title of the special issue, an abridged version of Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art and its Relevance for the Humanities, which is an installation research project funded by the Croatian Science Foundation to investigate the relationship between aesthetic and artistic values on the one hand and ethical, political, and social values on the other. The project is multidisciplinary among philosophy, criminology, film studies, and cognitive science, and three of the authors are members of the project team. I conclude by introducing each of the six articles, which employ two approaches, one from philosophical aesthetics and the other from critical criminology.

Aesthetic Education

It may appear redundant to begin a special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education with a delineation of the “aesthetic” and a denotation of “aesthetic education,” but my hope is that this volume will reach an audience beyond the humanities. Aesthetic is, furthermore, a vague and frustrating term with a profligate and confused history. During the Enlightenment, “aesthetic” was employed as a synonym for “beauty,” which was understood as taking many apparently unrelated forms, from the natural world to gardens to art to interior decorating and even mathematics. As in so many other fields of Western philosophy, Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism came to dominate aesthetics, and his Third Critique plays a crucial role in reconciling subject with object, freedom with nature, and human beings with the world in which they live. Kant established a complex taxonomy of powers of judgment, beginning with the distinction among the judgment of beauty and the judgments of virtue and agreeability in terms of the former's disinterest and the latter's interest.1 Aesthetic judgment placed the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding in harmonious free play, a cognitive harmony that was experienced as disinterested pleasure by the individual.2 In the last two hundred years, “aesthetic” has most frequently been conflated with “artistic,” and philosophical aesthetics are understood as sharing the same subject matter as art criticism. Both of these conceptions are too restrictive when it comes to the contemporary discipline. Bence Nanay offers a refreshingly simply definition when he states that aesthetics is “about ways of perceiving the world that are really rewarding and special.”3 Nanay distinguishes the particular type of perception involved as FODP—focused on objects but distributed amongst the properties of those objects—providing a contemporary take on disinterested pleasure. Combining the two, we have the aesthetic primarily as a kind of attention that is characteristically purposeless, that is, useless without being worthless.

Aesthetic education has suffered as much if not more than aesthetic when it comes to multiplicity of meanings and inconsistency of usage. “Aesthetic education” has been employed as a synonym for a liberal arts education, for education in or through the arts, and as a defense of the role of either the arts, the humanities, or both within the education system. Its philosophical use is, however, precise: a political education made by aesthetic means through the intermediary of the ethical. In other words, it is the thesis that political harmony can be achieved by the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility. The thesis was popularized by J. C. Friedrich von Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Schiller regarded human nature as an essentially dualist combination of the divine (reason and morality) with the animal (desire and the senses), and he believed the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution to have been caused by the tyranny of reason, the complete domination of one part of human nature over the other. The two aspects of human nature were understood in terms of drives: the form drive toward reason, universality, and unity; and the sense drive toward sensory experience, individuality, and variety. Schiller established an explicit connection between the two by means of the play drive, which achieved harmony of character by internalizing moral principles (form drive) in a pleasurable manner (sense drive).4 The actual mechanism by which aesthetic—as opposed to physical or moral (sensory or rational)—education operates is thus indirect rather than direct. Neither aesthetic experience nor aesthetic sensibility produces moral thought or moral behavior, but an aesthetic experience is an experience of play (the synthesis of the form and sense drives) and, in consequence, an experience of freedom, which is a necessary condition for moral action. This freedom is not just freedom to act in accordance with moral principles (the form drive) but is freedom to act in accordance with fully realized human nature (the play drive). For Schiller, aesthetic education was the only means of achieving harmony of character in the individual (moral harmony), and harmony in the individual was the prerequisite for achieving harmony in society (political harmony).

Schiller was both a poet and a philosopher, and the tradition of aesthetic education was sustained by a combination of poets and philosophers across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Walt Whitman and Matthew Arnold were particularly influential successors to Schiller, and they developed the tradition by achieving fame as cultural critics as well as poets.5 Aesthetic education reached its apotheosis in the twentieth century with Négritude. The three pillars of this literary and philosophical movement—Léopold Sédar Senghor, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Aimé Césaire—were all born in French colonies, achieved critical recognition for their poetry, and held eminent political positions.6 The mid-twentieth century also saw the emergence of a strand of aesthetic education rooted in first Marxism and then Critical Theory, driven by György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and Jacques Rancière.7 At the end of the twentieth century, the thesis became associated with the ethical turn in criticism, which involved a confluence of three traditions: the Hegelian, exemplified by Richard Rorty; the Aristotelian, exemplified by Martha Nussbaum; and the poststructural, exemplified by Jacques Derrida.8

Narrative Art

Stories are representations, and a representation is something that stands for something else, for example, a word on a page standing for an object in the world or a portrait standing for a person living or dead. Stories are instantiated in so many genres, by so many modes of representation, and across so many media channels in the twenty-first century that it is easier to name representations that are not stories. These include lists and diaries (with which all readers will be familiar), annals and chronicles (old-fashioned histories), most contemporary poems (i.e., lyric poetry), and most conversations (where one may set out to tell a story but usually fails courtesy of interruption, digression, or both).9 Stories are made rather than found and are intentionally produced by a creator. The identity of the creator is partly determined by the story's mode of representation, media channel, or both, for example, author (novel), director (feature film), or studio (television series). “Story” is sometimes used to denote something distinct from “narrative,” but I shall use the two terms as synonymous here. A story or narrative consists of two basic and essential components: a sequence of events, which may be real or imagined, and the representation of those events. Narrative representations are, however, necessarily rather than contingently selective, representing only a part of the whole sequence of events they take as their respective subjects.10 The proliferation of internet technology has not only increased the number of narrative representations in existence exponentially but has also increased the proportion of those representations that are short in length and simple in structure. These are called, variously, basic narratives, minimal narratives, notional narratives, or micronarratives. Strictly speaking, diaries, annals, chronicles, and conversations are narrative representations because they are basic narratives, but they are distinct from the complex narratives with which this special issue is concerned. Narrative representations are not simply divided into two groups, however, basic and complex. Narrativity as a property of a representation is gradational, proceeding in a continuum from basic narratives to nonbasic narratives to complex narratives. A complex narrative is the product of an agent that is high in narrativity in virtue of representing one or more agents and two or more events that are causally connected, thematically unified, and conclude.11 Complex narratives can be verbal or visual (or some combination of the two) and fictional or nonfictional (or some combination of the two).

The manner in which the representation of agency and the representation of event contribute to narrativity is straightforward, but the connection among events is more controversial. The causal connection requires that events earlier in the sequence either cause or contribute to events later in the sequence, but the connection is so strong in complex narratives that it contributes to their thematic unity, understood as a common thread upon which the representation focuses. The final feature, closure, emerges from thematic unity. Complex narratives conclude rather than terminate, providing readers or audiences with a tangible and meaningful sense of an ending. Peter Goldie provides a definition of a complex narrative that also describes emplotment, the process by which a sequence of events is transformed into a narrative representation:

A narrative or story is something that can be told or narrated, or just thought through in narrative thinking. It is more than just a bare annal or chronicle or list of a sequence of events, but a representation of those events which is shaped, organized, and coloured, presenting those events, and the people involved in them, from a certain perspective or perspectives, and thereby giving narrative structure—coherence, meaningfulness, and evaluative and emotional import—to what is related.12

The combination of causal connectivity, thematic unity, and closure produces a representation that is essentially perspectival; it presents people, places, and events from a particular point of view. The perspective that constitutes a complex narrative produces a framework, which can be conceived as an invitation to the audience to adopt certain emotional responses and evaluative attitudes to the characters, actions, and settings represented.13 Although at least two of the authors of this special issue disagree with my approach, I have characterized “complex narrative” instead of “narrative art” here. I have previously argued that the distinction between complex and basic narratives is more significant than either the distinction between fictional and nonfictional narratives or the distinction between artistic and unartistic narratives.14

Aesthetic education itself is ultimately a question of values or, more precisely for my purposes, the relationships among the different values attributed to complex narratives. To attribute value to an entity is to judge that the entity counts in some way, that it is worth something. Complex narratives can be valuable in all sorts of ways, some of which are relevant to narrativity and some of which are not. My interest is restricted first to the values that are supervenient on the narrativity of the representation and second to those that are realized in the experience of a complex narrative. Of the various values that meet these criteria, aesthetic education is concerned with the following four: aesthetic (or artistic) value, cognitive (or epistemic) value, ethical (or moral) value, and political (or ideological) value. The aesthetic value of a complex narrative is the pleasure or satisfaction of the experience of that narrative, which is a function of the simultaneous and interactive activation of one's senses, imagination, emotions, and intellect. The cognitive, ethical, and political values of a complex narrative are all functions of its narrative framework. The cognitive value of a complex narrative is the extent to which it provides knowledge of extratextual reality. Both the ethical and the political values of a complex narrative are a function of its attitudinal structure—the attitude that is embodied, enacted, or endorsed by the framework and that the reader or audience is invited to adopt. The ethical value of a complex narrative is the extent to which its attitudinal structure provides an evaluation of personal conduct and character. The political value of a complex narrative is the extent to which its attitudinal structure provides an evaluation of social organization and administration. Aesthetic education is the thesis that there is a causal relation between aesthetic value on the one hand and ethical and political value on the other hand and that this relation often also involves cognitive value in some way.

Installation Research Project

Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art and its Relevance for the Humanities (AEtNA) is an international, multidisciplinary research project based at the University of Rijeka and funded by the Croatian Science Foundation from February 2021 to January 2026.15 AEtNA's aim is to investigate the value of narrative representation for the communication of knowledge, the enrichment of ethical life, and the creation of social cohesion. The project is led by Iris Vidmar Jovanović, who is—like me—a regular contributor to the Journal of Aesthetic Education.16 She is assisted by two other co-investigators, Mario Slugan and Joerg Fingerhut, for the duration of the project and a postdoctoral researcher, David Grčki, for the first two years. It is my great pleasure to coauthor this special issue with Iris and David. AEtNA is divided into three themes:

  1. The claim that narrative art is a source of truth, capable of transferring knowledge and other cognitively relevant states (aesthetic cognitivism)

  2. The exploration of the transformative power of aesthetic experience with respect to one's ethical development (aesthetic education)

  3. The defense of the value of the humanities and humanistic education (i.e., the one that recognizes the relevance of art and art-related subjects, including other branches of humanities such as philosophy)17

Each year of the project is, furthermore, dedicated to a specific subject. The first year is about the relationship between fictional and nonfictional narratives, as an introduction to aesthetic cognitivism the next year (theme 1). The third year focuses on aesthetic education, which is explored from the perspective of neuroscientific approaches to art in the fourth year (theme 2). The fifth and final year draws on the work of the four previous years to extend the exploration of values from the ethical to the political, social, and educational (theme 3). By the time this special issue is published, AEtNA will be in its third year, an unintended but fortuitous synchronicity between project and journal.

As the only social scientist in the project team, I have been particularly interested in the methodology deployed, the complexity of which is evinced by the variety of disciplines, perspectives, and methods informing the research outputs to date.18 The project is multidisciplinary among philosophy, criminology, film studies, and cognitive science, and the perspectives within those disciplines are philosophical aesthetics; critical criminology; cognitive film theory; and embodied, embedded, enactive, extended, and affective (4EA) cognition, respectively. Taking my own definition of methodology as “a theory of research, set of principles, and system of methods regulating a particular inquiry or a discipline more generally,” an integrated matrix is emerging from what might have been a multifaceted muddle.19 The theories of research combine literary cognitivism20 and cognitive film theory21 on the one hand with 4EA cognition on the other.22 The set of principles can be summarized as the constitutive value of narrative and the narrative structure of human agency.23 The system of methods is, as one would expect, broader, involving four techniques of data collection. The most popular within the project are the close reading of narratives in the literary mode of representation and the visual analysis of narratives in the cinematic mode of representation (which includes both feature films and television series).24 The third and fourth are currently restricted to individual investigators, although they are completely compatible with the media analyses: micro-phenomenology by Fingerhut and co-constructed interviewing by me.25 As such, I am confident that the project will achieve a fully integrated research framework that provides interdisciplinary solutions at all three of the levels of cognitive, ethical, and political value.

Special Issue

I am very grateful to Pradeep Dhillon for the opportunity to edit this special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education, which follows a symposium on my monograph, Narrative Justice, that she was kind enough to host in Winter 2020.26 This issue focuses on two of the project's four disciplines, comprising three articles of philosophical aesthetics and three of critical criminology. There are also three authors from the project team— Vidmar Jovanović (philosophy), Grčki (philosophy), and me (criminology)—and three guests: Avi Brisman (criminology), Íngrid Vendrell Ferran (philosophy), and Marianne Colbran (criminology). I am indebted to all five of them for accepting my invitation to contribute and for providing such interesting and original articles on aesthetic education through narrative art. Recall that aesthetic education is a two-part thesis: a political education made by aesthetic means through the intermediary of the ethical. The claim is that political harmony can be achieved by the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility and that political harmony is supervenient on the existence of a collection of individuals with harmony of character (moral harmony). Within the overall thesis, some series and concepts restrict their explanatory power to the link between the aesthetic and the ethical and others extend the relationship from the aesthetic to the political. I have used these steps as an organizing principle for the special issue, beginning with the contributors who are focused on the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical and concluding with those focused on the relation between the aesthetic and the political. This divides the issue into two halves, by discipline, with the philosophers exploring the relationship between aesthetic and ethical value and the criminologists exploring the relationship between aesthetic and political value.

Vendrell Ferran addresses a specific issue—the experience of reading novels such as Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich—with great care and rigor. Beginning with the aesthetic norms I described as a narrative framework, she explores their impact first on the reader's imaginative and empathic abilities and then on the reader's character, which is understood in terms of core values. As the title of the article suggests, “The Transformative Power of Literary Perspectives” is an argument that this experience, taken in its entirety, can be genuinely transformative—a moral education by aesthetic means. What I find particularly interesting is the innovative way in which Vendrell Ferran combines the classic with the contemporary, employing the recent conception of transformative experience to enhance and enrich Schiller's original thesis with the same expertise for which I commended Nanay for shedding light on Kant's initial concern with disinterested pleasure as definitive of aesthetic judgment.

Vidmar Jovanović’s focus differs from my own in that it is concerned exclusively with narrative art, and her contribution to the special issue locates narrative art in the context of broader debates about the relationship between art and morality. “Perspectivism, Cognitivism, and the Ethical Evaluation of Art” is an exploration of perspectivism, the view that works of art prescribe a certain perspective, which I described as an attitudinal structure, and its role in establishing a causal relation between artistic or aesthetic value on the one hand and ethical value on the other. Like Rorty, Nussbaum, and Derrida, Vidmar Jovanović is seeking to establish a better way of doing ethical criticism. She concludes with a sketch of the form that this could—and should—take, which she calls ethically minded criticism of art, criticism that is primarily directed at revealing the work's cognitive and ethical insights as indicative of its cultural value.

Grčki narrows the focus, first to narrative art and then to cinematic art, in “Learning through Stories.” He accepts Vidmar Jovanović’s deflationary position on the ethical value of narrative: if we cannot (and, in my opinion, will never be able to) measure the impact of stories on the behavior of those who experience them, then the ethical value of narrative can be reduced to its cognitive value, to the extent to which it provides ethical knowledge.27 Grčki then makes an original argument for this value as being the understanding of complex sets of facts and establishes a link from the aesthetic to both the ethical and political in his concern with financial crises and social justice. His article is unique in the special issue as the only one to take a nonfiction narrative, Adam McKay's The Big Short (2015), as a case study.

My contribution remains with the cinematic mode of representation, using Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 (2017) as a case study. “Violence Is a Cleansing Force” is an homage to Jon Frauley, whose work, criticism, and support have been crucial to my development as a critical theorist. My aim is to provide a demonstration of Frauley's theory of the analytic value of fictional film, which deploys the concept of the criminological imagination, by exploring the reciprocal relationship between Blade Runner 2049 on the one hand and Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) on the other hand. The film not only provides an empirical referent for Fanon's psychological and political theories but also successfully integrates them, addressing a perennial criticism of Fanon's oeuvre. At the same time, Fanon's psychopolitics facilitates a much richer and more meaningful cinematic experience, integrating the aesthetic and the political in mutually beneficial relationship.

Colbran makes an insightful contribution to the special issue by drawing on her extensive experience as a television scriptwriter, which includes working on The Bill (1983–2010), the longest running police procedural television series in the United Kingdom. She also received a nomination for a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for the soap opera Brookside (1982–2003). Approaching the question of the relationship between the aesthetic and the political from her creative practice in “Thief-Takers and Rule-Breakers,” she challenges the standard criminological critique of crime dramas as distorting the reality they claim to represent, which has been the subject of extensive criticism in the form of “copaganda.”28 Colbran argues that representations of social reality are necessarily partial and that police television series should be valued for their symbolic rather than mimetic value, and she calls for a change in direction of the critical discourse.

Finally, Brisman returns the special issue to where it began by focusing on literature, using Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) as a case study. “Ecocide and Khattam-Shud” is a response to two previous works, Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) and Mark Bould's The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021), that are concerned with what I believe to be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced: anthropocidal ecocide caused by climate change.29 Brisman develops the debate about literature's capacity to respond to this unprecedented challenge by considering how human beings might tell better stories about climate change and concludes with a call to prioritize literature as a way of understanding what remains largely unconceivable—unthinkable or unconscious—a global response to a global problem, the political at its most broad. On such an appropriately momentous note, I welcome readers of all disciplines to Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art.


This work has been supported in part by the Croatian Science Foundation under the project UIP-2020-02-1309.


Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 [1790]), §§1–5, 203–11.


Kant, Critique of Judgment, §9, 217.


Bence Nanay, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1.


J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (London: Oxford University Press, 1967 [1794]), XIV, 97.


Jason Frank, “Walt Whitman: Aesthetic Democracy and the Poetry of the People,” The Review of Politics 69, (2007): 402–30; Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry,” in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (London: Macmillan, 1925 [1880]), 1–55.


Reiland Rabaka, The Negritude Movement: W. E. B. Du Bois, Léon Damas, Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and the Evolution of an Insurgent Idea (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).


Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).


Patrick Fessenbecker, Reading Ideas in Victorian Literature: Literary Content as Artistic Experience (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).


Rafe McGregor, Critical Criminology and Literary Criticism (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2021).


Rafe McGregor, Narrative Justice (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).


McGregor, Critical Criminology, 9.


Peter Goldie, The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2.


McGregor, Narrative Justice, 55.


See McGregor, Narrative Justice, passim.


The Croatian Science Foundation project number is: UIP-2020-02-1309.


See Rafe McGregor, “The Person of the Torturer: Secret Policemen in Fiction and Non-Fiction,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 4 (2020): 44–59; Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Kant on Poetry and Cognition,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 1 (2020): 1–17; Rafe McGregor, “Introduction to the Narrative Justice Symposium,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 4 (2020): 1–5; Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Becoming Sensible: Thoughts on Rafe McGregor's Narrative Justice,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 4 (2020): 48–61; Rafe McGregor, “Replies to Critics,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 4 (2020): 62–75; Rafe McGregor, “The Complex Art of Murder,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 56, no. 3 (2022): 63–80; Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Art and Moral Motivation: Why Art Fails to Move Us?” Journal of Aesthetic Education, forthcoming.


Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Research Description,” Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art and its Relevance for the Humanities (2022). https://aetna.uniri.hr/?page_id=30.


David Grčki, “Research Output: Publications,” Aesthetic Education through Narrative Art and its Relevance for the Humanities (2022). https://aetna.uniri.hr/?page_id=173.


McGregor, Narrative Justice, 188.


McGregor, Critical Criminology; Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Applied Ethical Criticism of Art,” Etica & Politica XXIII, no. 3 (2021): 443–59; Kate Kirkpatrick, Rafe McGregor, and Karen Simecek, “Literary Interventions in Justice: A Symposium,” Estetika: The European Journal of Aesthetics LVIII, no. 2 (2021): 160–78; Rafe McGregor, “Analytic Aesthetics from Theory to Practice? Reply to Vidmar Jovanović,” Etica & Politca XXIV, no. 1 (2022): 165–74; Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Theory and Practice of Analytic Aesthetics: The Issue of Ethical Criticism of Art in the Context of McGregor's Concerns,” Etica & Politica XXIV, no. 1 (2022): 175–84.


Mario Slugan, “Fiction as a Challenge to a Text-Oriented Studies,” New Review of Film and TV Studies, forthcoming; Mario Slugan, “Changing Minds: Fiction, Beliefs, and Emotion,” in Does Fiction Change the World? Alison James, Akihiro Kubo, and Françoise Lavocat, eds. (Oxford: Legenda, forthcoming).


Joerg Fingerhut, “The Mediated Brain. A Case Study,” in Worlding the Brain, eds. Flora Lysen and Stephan Besser (Leuven: Brill, forthcoming).


Iris Vidmar Jovanović and David Grčki, eds., Croatian Journal of Philosophy Special Issue: Fact, Fiction and Narration XXII, no. 65 (2022): 141–290; Joerg Fingerhut and Katrin Heimann, “Enacting Moving Images: Film Theory and Experimental Science within a New Cognitive Media Theory,” Projections 16, no. 1 (2022): 105–23.


These methods have been employed by all five of the current project team, most recently in David Grčki and Rafe McGregor, An Epistemology of Criminological Cinema (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming).


Fingerhut and Heimann, “Enacting Moving Images”; Rafe McGregor, Literary Theory and Criminology (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming).


Rafe McGregor, Camille Lewis, Derek Matravers, Vladimir Rizov, Karen Simecek, and Iris Vidmar Jovanović, “Narrative Justice Symposium,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 54, no. 4 (2020): 1–75.


I argue for a similar position in Narrative Justice.


See, for example, Travis Linnemann, The Horror of Police (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022).


“Anthropocidal ecocide” is a concept I explore in Literary Theory and Criminology.

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