Which “Aesthetics” of Interaction?

I was pleased to discover in my mailbox last week a copy of the double issue on the aesthetics of interaction in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI). I immediately flipped through the Table of Contents and skimmed the articles. For those who don’t know, TOCHI is a top-tier journal in our field, and the Table of Contents does not disappoint. I realized that for many, this special double (!) issue on the aesthetics of interaction represents in some ways the state of the art.

Nonetheless, as I browsed the journal, I also naturally perused the references for each article. My first reaction was that the referenced articles were heavily derived from technology literature, especially the HCI community, lots of psychology and sociology, and a generous amount of new media literature. I found surprisingly little reference to philosophical aesthetics, which outside of HCI is the mainstream of aesthetic thinking. Philosophical aesthetics includes the philosophy of art and beauty, and its major modern thinkers include Beardsley, Carroll, Dickie, Danto, Eagleton, Gadamer, and Shusterman among others. These thinkers in turn are standing on the shoulders of an aesthetic tradition that arguably goes back to Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus, but which picks up momentum in the 18th century and forward, and includes Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bell, Langer, Collingwood, and so on.

The closer I looked, the more I was struck by the divide between mainstream aesthetics and HCI. I decided to collect some numbers to illustrate my point.

Method. I counted every single reference in the journal. I then read every single entry and marked down all instances of references that were to humanistic aesthetics outside of technology studies, including philosophical aesthetics, art history, and literary theory. I excluded all new media writings (e.g., Manovich, Laurel, Wilson) and works on aesthetics from technical conferences and publications (such as SIGCHI). I included a few humanistic sources that were tangential to aesthetics, such as Tuan’s work on humanist geography (space and place).

Results. Here is what I found:

There were 272 references in the entire double issue.
There were 22 references to humanistic aesthetics as defined above.

In other words:

8% of the references were to aesthetics in its humanistic sense.
92% of the references in this issue were to technology and social science sources.

The 8% includes repeats–Shusterman’s Pragmatist Aesthetics alone represents 3 of the 22 citations. Additionally, my own perception of that 8% was that, with some exceptions, most notably Shusterman, it was somewhat idiosyncratic. I then consulted my copy of the 850-page Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (G. Levinson, ed.), which has a chapter devoted to the state of the art of aesthetics (P. Guyer’s “History of Modern Aesthetics”) including a  bibliographical essay and 227-item bibliography of canonical readings in aesthetics. Of the 22 references cited in TOCHI, only 5 of them (Dewey, Heidegger, Hume, Kant, and Shusterman) appeared in this bibliography; note that only one of these is contemporary (Shusterman).

What this means and doesn’t mean.

First, it is important to stress that I am not criticizing the scholarship of any of the individual essays in the special issue. Their references were extensive (272 divided among 6 papers) and both authoritative and complete as far as technological and new media aesthetics go; indeed, the special issue is a gold mine for those looking for references on technological aesthetics, quite beyond the articles themselves.

Second, my exclusion of technological aesthetics is not trivial, nor is it meant to suggest that this isn’t important literature. I didn’t count some of my favorite new media authors (including personal hero Lev Manovich) for this reason. Additionally, there was some interesting digital art discussed in this issue that fall under the broad aesthetics umbrella (not just technological aesthetics), and I did not count that either. It’s not that these are not significant voices on art and aesthetics. But my goal was to explore the relationship between philosophical aesthetics and HCI, not to suggest that the TOCHI issue on aesthetic interaction was disconnected from anything resembling aesthetics.

What this does suggest is that HCI is cut off from mainstream aesthetics, that it bases its conceptualization of aesthetics primarily on technological and social scientific notions of aesthetics.

If HCI were more directly connected to mainstream aesthetics, not only would it include mentions of important thinkers, like Kant, but it would engage directly with their ideas, as well as with the abundant philosophical commentary on them. It was the absence of the latter that surprised me most. Let me explain with a hypothetical example. If I wanted to use Kantian aesthetics in some way in HCI, I would not start by reading Kant. Rather, I would engage first in the enormous commentary literature written by scholars of Kant, who are far better both at elucidating his key ideas and also at spelling out the deeper implications of the ideas. By “deeper implications,” I am referring specifically to the sorts of things that trained philosophers and humanists concern themselves with: where the ideas came from, their weaknesses, how those weaknesses might be addressed, how the ideas relate to their original intellectual contexts (e.g., 18th century German society), how they have been appropriated and revised by subsequent thinkers, where subsequent thinkers ran into trouble, and so on. This literature no doubt would eventually push me into reading Kant, or important selections of his, but in doing so, I would be standing on the shoulders of Kant’s greatest readers and interpreters.

Conclusion. HCI has a growing and maturing literature on the aesthetics of interaction, and this is a great thing. The TOCHI special issue represents the current gold standard, and its bibliography alone is quite valuable.

But there is also an opportunity here: HCI researchers can continue to enrich this agenda by engaging directly with mainstream aesthetics. In particular, contemporary commentaries on major aesthetic philosophers are generally accessible to non-specialists and loaded with good ideas that have been examined and developed in great detail. Volumes like the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics abound and offer intellectually mature resources to aesthetically minded interaction designers.


  1. V.M.

    My background is quite holistic, so I’m somewhat familiar with art philosophy and theories. Thus it has been a bit embarrassing to listen how in HCI conferences people try to reinvent aesthetics. That is done usually quite badly or superficially at least when compared to theories and practices there already are.

  2. Lynn Marentette

    Thanks for your thoughtful post about HCI and philosophical aesthetics and the “history of ideas” approach to looking at this discipline.

    • jeffreybardzell

      Hi Tanya, thanks for writing and bringing up the “two cultures” angle. I don’t think this is a “good” example of Two Cultures, because bringing aesthetics and interaction design (conceived as a science) together is obviously (and perhaps only superficially) a bridging of the Two Cultures. So inasmuch as it is a bridging, I don’t think it fits. But inasmuch as the bridging is proceeding unevenly, I certainly agree that the history of the Two Cultures is a major underlying factor. But I am optimistic. I am one of many, many people actively bridging this gap. And the fact that I have an academic position in an HCI program in the first place suggests a general awareness that this bridging agenda is worthwhile. In short, my response is that Two Cultures is a part of the historical backdrop, but it does not quite describe the present, and I think (and hope!) it will even less describe the future. –JB

  3. Jay


    You just keep giving me more stuff to add to my reading list! I now have The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics and a few other recommended titles on my wish list at amazon.com!

    What struck me personally when I was reading your post was dramatically influenced by my virtually non-existent background in philosophy, not to mention philosophical aesthetics. Unfortunately, our current higher ed system does not promote the study of these subjects for business school students – and that is a very sad thing. If there is one thing I have learned from my own life experiences (and which is being strongly reinforced in your class) is the importance of knowing and understanding the philosophical underpinnings of “experience”. I think it is also important to be aware of the fact that much of the business world still doesn’t get this.

    Many of us will eventually find ourselves with jobs working with b-school grads in the corporate world. It is one thing to know and understand these fundamental concepts. It is another thing to be able to effectively convey them to others who are affected by this but have not studied it. This is one of the primary reasons why I am so grateful to be in the HCI/d program at IU. I am still very much of a “noob” when it comes to understanding philosophical aesthetics but I am convinced that mainstream aesthetics is a vital element of my development as an HCI professional. Thanks for pushing us in this direction. One of my goals before I graduate is to at least know who all the people are that you referred to in your post (beyond just looking them up in wikipedia).

    @Lynn – Just wanted to let you know that the link in your comment was incorrect. I found your blog from google and added it to my feed reader (actually all three!). So, for anyone else that wants to read Lynn’s posts, here is the url – http://tshwi.blogspot.com/ BTW – I lived in Charlotte for 12 years – loved it there.

  4. olov

    hi, iam a swedish HCI student and i want to focus my studies on aestetics (as in philosophy) and interaction design. i found your post very interesting and i would like to ask you if you could name any of the writers in the magazine that were refering to humanistic aestetics.

    thank you


  5. Troy Church

    Great analysis and thinking – as always. Keep it up.

  6. Discourse Analysis vs. Close Reading « Interaction Culture

    […] Equivocation: This happens when two or more groups of people use the same word in completely different ways, without seeming to be aware that their use is not “natural” or universal. In HCI, “aesthetics” seems to be a word that has almost no relationship to the 2,500 year old tradition of aesthetic theory, as I’ve ranted on before. […]

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