Mission, Objectives, Topics

The objective of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the mechanisms, elicitors, and functions of aesthetic liking and aesthetic preferences: Who appreciates what and why and under which conditions? And what functions do aesthetic practices and preferences serve for individuals, social groups and societies? The Institute’s research focuses primarily on the foundations of aesthetic evaluation, perception, and experience.

Key topics include:

  • the nature of “aesthetic pleasure” and the different types of aesthetic appeal and “aesthetic emotions”;
  • the cognitive and affective mechanisms involved in aesthetic perception and their neural, physiological and behavioral correlates;
  • the motivational implications and consequences of aesthetic liking (tendencies to seek prolonged and/or repeated exposure to aesthetically appealing objects, pictures, songs, texts; decision-making grounded in aesthetic judgments, such as purchasing aesthetically appealing objects, etc.);
  • the ontogenesis of aesthetic preferences, their change over lifetime, and their historical, cultural, and individual variability;
  • the range of historically and culturally varying concepts used to designate and discuss aesthetic judgments, such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “sublime,” “interesting,” “fascinating,” “poetic,” “uncanny,” “marvelous,” “awesome,” “moving,” “touching,” “shattering,” “tragic,” “suspenseful,” etc.;
  • the functions of aesthetic practices and judgments for the development of cognitive and affective capabilities as well as for the subjective well-being, self-conception, and “self-fashioning” of individuals, for social communication, and for economic purposes;
  • aesthetically appealing properties of objects in different domains (auditory, visual, and multi-modal aesthetics), in different art forms (painting, sculpture, song, instrumental music, language, literature, film, video clips, architecture, fashion, design), and in specific genres of these art forms.

Despite its impressive foundation by Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887), empirical aesthetics has by and large remained a marginal field of research, both in academic psychology and in the study of the arts. The mission of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics is to provide a new institutional and scientific framework for coordinated and interdisciplinary research into aesthetics. In a world in which aesthetic experiences, shared aesthetic preferences, and aesthetically motivated decisions have become ubiquitous aspects of everyday life, systematic, basic research into the nature and functions of aesthetic practices, judgments, and motivations is no mere luxury, but an important research goal.

In this effort the Institute faces the challenge of further developing and integrating theories, hypotheses, and models from very different disciplines, most notably from psychology, the traditional poetics of the individual art forms, musicology, art history, literary studies, biology, sociology, and the neurosciences. The mission of the Institute is informed by the assumption that progress towards an integrative aesthetic theory can only be achieved through a strong focus on basic research and joint interdisciplinary efforts.