Aesthetics in Finland in 2011

By Ossi Naukkarinen, Aalto University School of Art and Design, Helsinki, Finland

In every country the state of any field of knowledge can be described through several different factors. The most important of these include the primary actors in the field, such as institutional organizations and individual scholars, events, publications, the dominant subjects or themes of study, and schools of thought. The characteristics of such factors tend to change over the course of time, and thus they can also be made use of when interpreting the history of a field, but here my intention is to focus on the current state of aesthetics in Finland.

Compared to many other countries, the institutional status of Finnish aesthetics is fairly strong and well-established. Aesthetics has its own permanent professorship at the University of Helsinki, and its history as an independent field dates back to 1852, when the chair of “aesthetics and modern literature” was established. Even before that time, Finnish academia was active in aesthetic issues but dealt with them through different channels.1

The current Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Helsinki is Arto Haapala, who runs the program with the help of university lecturer Oiva Kuisma. Their pool of adjunct professors and part-time lecturers includes some fifteen active members, and there are several interesting doctoral candidates who will complete their studies within the next few years. At the University of Helsinki, aesthetics closely co-operates with art research programs such as comparative literature, theatre research and film & television studies. Interestingly, its contacts with the program of philosophy are not quite as firm as in many other countries, although collaboration does occasionally take place; aesthetics is considered a field of its own, not a part or a sub-division of philosophy, although it is inevitably philosophical in nature.

In addition to the chair at the University of Helsinki, aesthetics also has a strong presence in other Finnish universities. Courses focusing on aesthetic issues are regularly organized at these other institutions, and there are professors or other faculty members who are specialized in aesthetics, for example at Aalto University (Ossi Naukkarinen and Max Ryynänen), the University of Eastern Finland (Yrjö Sepänmaa) and the University of Jyväskylä (Pauline von Bonsdorff). These are only the most salient cases, where aesthetics is explicitly mentioned in curricula by that name, but issues very close to philosophical aesthetics are also dealt with in several other educational institutions focusing on arts, art education, design, and philosophy, often by people who don’t necessarily consider themselves aestheticians. This especially includes art universities (Aalto University School of Art and Design, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Sibelius Academy, and the Theatre Academy), which are interesting because of their strong emphasis on art practice. As such, these institutions are also trying to develop their own style of research, sometimes described as “artistic research”.2 The central status of the University of Helsinki, however, is further emphasized by the fact that many of those who teach and do research on aesthetics at other universities, including the art universities, originally studied and were granted their PhD at the University of Helsinki.

century, is in contrast awarded much more rarely, and is typically granted to an individual who has a long and influential career in aesthetics. (See

Yet another player in the field is the International Institute of Applied Aesthetics, founded in 1993 and located in Lahti. Nowadays it is officially part of the University of Helsinki, however it works rather independently. Its daily operations are managed by Kalle Puolakka and Sanna Lehtinen. The institute organizes education content as well as both national and international events in the area of Lahti, and occasionally publishes books. Currently, it is emphatically oriented towards environmental questions and works in close co-operation with the Helsinki University Centre for Environment. (See

In the end, many events are organized as joint ventures of these actors, often in co-operation with still other institutions such as the Nordic Society of Aesthetics, other universities, or city governments. In recent years the themes of these events have focused on empirical aesthetics, arts and politics, art criticism, and the relationship between arts and crafts. Since the year 2000, featured speakers have included such internationally well-known names as Arnold Berleant, Aleš Erjavec, Karsten Harries, Nathalie Heinich, Tom Leddy, Jos de Mul, Yuriko Saito, Crispin Sartwell, Martin Seel, Richard Shusterman, and Wolfgang Welsch, just to mention a few. At the same time, Finnish scholars have been eager to take part in events organized in other countries, such as world conferences; considering the small population of the country (some five million inhabitants), the number of Finnish participants is sometimes surprisingly high.

The events focusing on environmental aesthetics organized by Yrjö Sepänmaa – independently of the organizations mentioned above – deserve a separate mention. During the years from 1994 to 2009 Sepänmaa organized seven international conferences in co-operation with the University of Joensuu (now part of the University of Eastern Finland) and the Union of Rural Education and Culture, and also organized the publications associated with these events.

This has made Sepänmaa probably the internationally best known Finnish aesthetician, especially in the field of environmental aesthetics; practically all important thinkers in the field from Allen Carlson and Marcia Eaton to Eugene C. Hargrove and Ronald Hepburn have visited Sepänmaa’s conferences.

All of these institutions, and the individual people working in them, also publish actively. As typical for the humanities in many countries, publications are written both in the local language, in Finland this being Finnish and in some cases Swedish3, and in English (and occasionally in German and French as well). Both new titles and translations of older ones are produced, across the range of these linguistic spheres.

It is important to emphasize that for a small culture it is vital to actively develop a scholarly discourse of its own. It might seem waste of time and energy not to publish everything in some more widely spread language, however it certainly is not. One’s identity is strongly connected to one’s mother tongue (although not only to it of course); we exist partly through our own native languages, and if we lack the possibility to use them in a meaningful way we are at risk of losing something very important. In addition, one might say that we are quite as responsible for maintaining the diversity of languages and cultures as we are for the diversity of, say, animal species. Our linguistic abilities must be developed and cherished if we wish to keep them alive and functional. And so, a part of Finnish aesthetics is and probably will remain understandable to the Finnish speaking audience alone – and I believe that the same is true of the Chinese, Polish, Japanese, Italian, Slovenian and countless other versions of aesthetics as well. This, however, should by no means result in a xenophobic withdrawal into one’s own cultural bubble, but rather into a peaceful coexistence with and lively exchange between various worldviews.

Publications in Finnish from recent years feature books and articles on the history of aesthetics (Kuisma has been especially active in this field), environmental aesthetics (von Bonsdorff, Haapala, Naukkarinen, Sepänmaa), everyday aesthetics (Naukkarinen, Ryynänen), the philosophy of art or of some special sector of it such as interpretation, literature, or architecture (Martta Heikkilä, Puolakka, Kimmo Sarje, Simo Säätelä), gender as well as ethical and political issues (Leena-Maija Rossi, Anita Seppä), and evolutionary aesthetics (Risto Pitkänen). Single works on various themes such as Japanese aesthetics (Minna Eväsoja) have also been published. Many of these articles have been published in the journal Synteesi, produced by the Finnish Society of Aesthetics along with the Finnish Society for Semiotics and the Research Society of Art Education in Finland; one part of each volume (four parts each year) is reserved for aesthetics. The internet-based discussion forum run by Irmeli Hautamäki and Pirkko Homberg also regularly generates interesting essays, as do several other journals with a focus on arts and philosophy.

In addition, the same authors have also published in English on similar themes, and have also edited issues of or written articles and reviews for such journals as Aesthetic Pathways, British Journal of Aesthetics, Contemporary Aesthetics, Dialogue and Universalism, European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, Philosophy Compass, etc. To date, English-language monographs on aesthetics written by Finns have not been published by major international publishers, although Finns have written chapters for books published by Routledge, Columbia University Press, and other widely known publishing houses.4 English-language books by Finns have primarily been published by Finnish publishers such as the International Institute of Applied Aesthetics, Gaudeamus/Helsinki University Press, and the Aalto University School of Art and Design. Whether “major international publishers” will still be important in the future while the electronic distribution of information becomes more and more common is a question of its own, but for the time being they do have a role to play.

Recent translations of foreign language works into Finnish range from whole books such as John Dewey’s classic Art as Experience to contemporary works such as Jacques Rancière’s Le Partage du sensible, as well as articles and extracts by various authors such as Alexander Baumgarten via Edmund Burke to Denis Dutton. There does not appear to be many translations of Finnish-language books into English5, however some volumes by Finns have been translated, for example, into Chinese and Korean6.

led by Naukkarinen (2009–2012, although there are also others that touch upon the field of aesthetics.

To my mind, there are no clear-cut schools of thought in aesthetics in Finland; rather, it seems typical to make use of various traditions even within single studies. The most common international influences come from the analytic (Carroll, Danto, Levinson, etc.), continental-phenomenological (Foucault, Gadamer, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc.), and pragmatist (Dewey, Shusterman, etc.) traditions, each understood broadly – or from thinkers who make such combinations themselves (Berleant, Margolis, Welsch). This means that in an ideal case clear language and convincing argumentation are combined with a sensitive eye towards the particularity of the chosen phenomena and a good understanding of the potential viability of the presented ideas – all of this requiring a wide-ranging knowledge on scholarly discourse. Lately, as in many other countries, interest in combining aesthetics with natural sciences has also been increasing, Risto Pitkänen being the foremost representative of this approach in Finland. Except in some rare cases, influences come from Western traditions, and not even the Russian discourse is well-known despite Finland and Russia being neighboring countries; this is probably due to language barriers.

In fact, this open-minded attitude towards various themes and the mixing of background materials nicely continues the work of earlier generations of Finnish aestheticians such as Yrjö Hirn, Aarne Kinnunen and Päivi Huuhtanen, whose impact on the Finnish scene has been very strong even if they are not necessarily that well-known abroad. It should thus be noted that the most important influences on our contemporary situation do not solely come from abroad. In any case, as creating fresh combinations often means looking for information and inspiration from other fields of knowledge, such as the social and natural sciences, it can sometimes be hard to say which studies actually belong to the core areas of aesthetics, which to some kind of borderline zone, and which to some other field. This, however, might be a problem for people categorizing books in libraries, but not for anyone working in or closely related to the field.

All in all, the current status of Finnish aesthetics seems fairly strong, and there is no reason to believe that it will become any weaker in the near future – in fact quite the contrary, as we look forward to the continuation of a vibrant local tradition.


  1. (Vol. 6, 2011; )

  1. that has some Finnish scholars on their editorial board, as well as among their active contributors,

  1. In practice not in Sami, even if it is the third official language of the country.

  1. For example, Kalle Puolakka, “Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” in Grant Pook and Diana Newall (eds.), Fifty Key Texts in Art History, Routledge, 2011.

  1. There are some, however, one being my Art of the Environment, Helsinki: OKKA Foundation for Teaching, Education and Personal Development, 2007 (originally in Finnish in 2003).

  1. Yrjö Sepänmaa’s The Beauty of Environment that was originally published in English by the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in 1986 has been translated into both languages.

  1. See, for example, the project Figures of Touch