Dates: 1880-1934

Nationality: British

Edward Bullough (1880–1934) was a psychologist and philosopher of art. He was a lecturer at Cambridge on modern languages and ultimately was named Serena Professor of Italian in 1933. He is most noted for the idea of psychical distance. In 1912 wrote of it in a long paper entitled, Psychical Distance as a factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle. In this he set down in a reasonably complete manner the concept as it applied to the arts. which appeared in the British Journal of Psychology. Evidently, he successfully influenced thinkers 50 years later. Donald Sherburne, for example, says, “Edward Bullough’s psychical distance has become “a classic doctrine of aesthetic thinking.” And James L. Jarrett writes of Bullough’s ideas, “Perhaps no more influential idea has been introduced into modern aesthetics than that of psychical distance.”

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Psychical distance’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 October 2010, 15:12 UTC, <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Psychical_distance&oldid=390891736>

Bullough, who prefers to speak of “psychical distance” rather than disinterest, characterizes aesthetic appreciation as something achieved

by putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our actual practical self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends—in short, by looking at it ‘objectively’ … by permitting only such reactions on our part as emphasise the ‘objective features of the experience, and by interpreting even our ‘subjective’ affections not as modes of our being but rather as characteristics of the phenomenon. (Bullough 1995, 298–299; emphasis in original).

Bullough has been criticized for claiming that aesthetic appreciation requires dispassionate detachment:

Bullough’s characterization of the aesthetic attitude is the easiest to attack. When we cry at a tragedy, jump in fear at a horror movie, or lose ourselves in the plot of a complex novel, we cannot be said to be detached, although we may be appreciating the aesthetic qualities of these works to the fullest… . And we can appreciate the aesthetic properties of the fog or storm while fearing the dangers they present. (Goldman 2005, 264)

But such a criticism seems to overlook a subtlety of Bullough’s view. While Bullough does hold that aesthetic appreciation requires distance “between our own self and its affections” (Bullough 1995, 298), he does not take this to require that we not undergo affections but quite the opposite: only if we undergo affections have we affections from which to be distanced. So, for example, the properly distanced spectator of a well-constructed tragedy is not the “over-distanced” spectator who feels no pity or fear, nor the “under-distanced” spectator who feels pity and fear as she would to an actual, present catastrophe, but the spectator who interprets the pity and fear she feels “not as modes of [her] being but rather as characteristics of the phenomenon” (Bullough 1995, 299). The properly distanced spectator of a tragedy, we might say, understands her fear and pity to be part of what tragedy is about.

Shelley, James, “The Concept of the Aesthetic”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/aesthetic-concept/>

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