The Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander (1859–1938) can be characterized as an important figure in twentieth-century philosophy. Although Alexander is primarily known about his work on metaphysics, he also wrote about history of philosophy, ethics, aesthetics and philosophy of religion. Moreover, he was interested in education, feminism and psychology. His philosophical work is based on his rejection of idealism, given that he was an eager supporter of the movement of realism.
It would be quite interesting to have a closer look in Alexander’s views on aesthetics. Alexander’s account on value is thought to be of great importance. His basic problematic is relied on the nature of value and its relation to beauty. On his work Morality as an Art, proposes that we can efficiently understand morality by comparing it to fine art. Precisely, he argues that moral values, as well as the value of beauty which is found in art, are human inventions. Consequently, truth and goodness do not derive from external source, but they are constructed in response to certain human needs, such as instincts and impulses. Trying to approach this issue more deeply, he proposes that supreme values have an animal origin. Alexander goes on to argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays an important role in the development of value. The idea is that, for animals, things that have value are usually those that will further the survival of the species, such as food. Animals whose interests do not help to maintain their existence succumb under the conditions of their existence, and “leave the field” for others. In this way, natural selection provides a history of value.
But why is Alexander’s theory of art considered to be important? What Alexander does, is that he ultimately changes the common idea that people are used to adopt about the origin of supreme values. Beauty, truth and goodness do not have a divine origin, but they are products of human construction. It is not an external power that creates them, but human being itself. Our values reflect our basic vital needs. This is the reason why we should not serve them inadvertently. Instead, we should keep a critical attitude as fundamental values are concerned. Does the system of our values really express our needs, or is its role just decorative?