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Professor Jennifer McMahon

Telephone +61 8 8313 5296
Position Professor of Philosophy
Fax +61 8 8313 4341
Building Napier Building
Floor/Room 7 10
Campus North Terrace
Org Unit Philosophy

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Biography/ Background

Jenny McMahon has had a long association with the Arts, beginning her professional life as a visual artist, art critic, and arts educator in Melbourne (including Institute of Education, University of Melbourne), before taking up philosophy at Melbourne and the Australian National University, Canberra. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the Australian National University in Canberra in 1997, lectured in Arts Education at the University of Canberra from 1996, before joining the Philosophy Department at the University of Adelaide in 2002, where she is currently Professor of Philosophy.

Jenny was Head of the Philosophy Department from 2010 to middle of 2012 and in second semester 2013.  She was Director of Graduate Studies for the Faculty of Arts, from 2014-2015; and is currently on the Executive of the Australasian Association of Philosophy; and is Chief Investigator for an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant 2015-2017.

Teaching Interests

Jenny's upper level courses are Beauty: Pleasures and Principles; Pragmatism and Value Theory; and Philosophy of Art. She coordinates the Philosophy Discipline's largest first year course Argument and Critical Thinking, a course she has lectured in since 2002.  Since joining Philosophy at Adelaide, Jenny has taught in a range of courses from Introductory Logic and Moral Problems to Epistemology and Metaphysics and has regularly contributed lectures to courses in European Studies and Classics on art theory and ancient philosophy respectively. At the graduate level, Jenny teaches courses on Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Neo-pragmatism.

Jenny supervises honours and post-graduate students in philosophy - aesthetics, neo-pragmatism, philosophy of art - and in art history/theory of art. She has convened reading groups in Aesthetics and Neo-Pragmatism.

Research Interests

McMahon's research has two different but related aims. The first includes original scholarship on Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment in which she identifies the origins of misreadings of Kant's aesthetic formalism in the writing of certain early twentieth century philosophers and art theorists who influenced writing on Kant's aesthetics up until the present. McMahon provides textual evidence to support an alternative reading which demonstrates that the popular concepts of disinterest and universality where aesthetic reflective judgments are concerned, which are the standard foil of cognitive aesthetic theories, are in fact based on only part of Kant's Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment. They rely solely on a reading of the Analytic of the Beautiful where Kant sets out what an aesthetic judgment is, and they ignore the crucial Deduction of Pure Aesthetic Judgments, where Kant sets out how such judgments are possible. The former is written with the latter in view. McMahon argues that without taking both into consideration, a distorted interpretation of Kant's formalism is the result.  Such a distortion has been treated as the standard view of Kant's formalism in Philosophy of Art for the last century.

The second aim of McMahon's research is more applied. She explores and facilitates research in imagination, color perception and the acculturation of pleasure to culturally specific objects. This research assumes that such capacities develop in universal ways but pays particular attention to the way that such universals manifest in culturally specific ways within different contexts. The problem that arises and drives this arm of McMahon's research is whether we are able to cross cultural barriers where value judgments are concerned, even if these capacities are grounded in such universals. Aesthetic reflective judgment is treated as a type of judgment that epitomizes the structure of value judgments more broadly.

McMahon provides an update of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory in her first monograph Aesthetics and Material Beauty: Aesthetics Naturalised (Routledge 2007). In her recent book, Art and Ethics in a Material World: Kant’s Pragmatist Legacy (Routledge 2013) she argues that the aesthetic or imaginative component of value judgments is rationally grounded when constrained by community exchanges, that is, communicability. She demonstrates the point by discussing the creation and reception of contemporary art, in particular, installation and video works created by artists Olafur Eliasson (Berlin), Mischa Kuball (Dusseldorf), Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro (Sydney/Berlin), Doris Salcedo (Bogota) and Daniel von Sturmer (Melbourne).

McMahon has been a member of the Advisory Committee of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, since 2012.

McMahon has also been a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide since 2013.

Jenny is interviewed on New Books in Philosophy about her book Art and Ethics in a Material World.

An Author-Meets-Critics session for Jenny's new book Art and Ethics in a Material World was held at the Amercian Society of Aesthetics conference in San Antonio, Texas in October-November 2014. The Critics included: Cynthia Freeland, Paul Guyer and Mohan Matthen.

Jenny is team leader of an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP150103143) funded from 2015-2017 which brings together American philosophers Paul Guyer and Cynthia Freeland, Canadian philosopher Mohan Matthen, Australian philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink; and Australian artists Claire Healy, Sean Cordeiro and Daniel von Sturmer; to examine the relation between imaginative constructs and perception, and implications for understanding the nature of community. The project website ArtSense: Taste and Community can be accessed here:

For related upcoming workshop see:  and Here

In September 2015, Jenny curated a two day Symposium at the Lock-Up in Newcastle with Sean Lowry (Creative and performing Arts, Newcastle) which brought together artists/musicians/performers and philosopher commentators.  See:  A publication based on the philosophical ideas generated by the event can be found in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture  5:2/3 pp.135-150.



Highlighted Work

Sole Authored Monographs

August 2014 (hbk):  Art and Ethics in a Material World: Kant's Pragmatist Legacy. New York & London: Routledge. Published in the "Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory Series". Various E-Book editions. Paper back published July 2015.

Reviews of Art and Ethics in a Material World

2007: Aesthetics and Material Beauty: Aesthetics Naturalized. New York & London: Routledge. Published in the "Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy Series." E-book edition 2008; Paperback edition 2009.

Reception of Aesthetics and Material Beauty

Reference Works

2012: "Beauty." In Oxford Bibliographies Online: Philosophy. Ed. Duncan Pritchard. New York: Oxford University Press, 29/08/2012.

2005: Beauty in Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London: Routledge): 307-19.

2001: Beauty in Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London: Routledge): 227-38.

Prior to 2001 Publications

2000: Perceptual Principles as the Basis for Genuine Judgements of Beauty, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7:8-9, 29-35.

1999: Towards a Unified Theory of Beauty, Literature and Aesthetics, 9:7-27.

1998: The Nature of Pictorial Representation: The Evidence from Cognitive Science, Australian Art Education (The Journal of the Australian Institute of Art Education), 21:2, 27-35.

1998: An Unlikely Partnership: Philosophical Aesthetics and Educational Theory, Proceedings of the National Conference in Education, Australian College of Education, Canberra.

1996: Aesthetic Perception, Communication and Cognition (a special volume on Epistemology and Psychology), 29: 1, 37-64.

1993: The Rationality of the Innate Foundations of Aesthetic Response, Australian Art Education (The Journal of the Australian Institute of Art Education), 16: 3, 18-28.

1989: Dewey's Educational Theory: The Relevance For Art Education, Australian Art Education (The Journal of the Australian Institute of Art Education),  13: 1, 11-16.

Prior Book Reviews

(2001) Review of James Elkins. Our Beautiful; Dry and Distant Texts, Art History as Writing (Penn State University Press, 1997) in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 79: 1, 142-143.

(2001) James Kirwan, Beauty (Manchester University Press, 1999) in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59:3, 334-336.

(2000) Commentary on Semir Zeki's Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Leonardo Reviews On-Line

(1999) Review of Patricia M.Matthews. The Significance of Beauty. Kant on Feeling and the System of the Mind (Dordrecht; Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) in Philosophy in Review, 19(2) (April), 129-130.

(1999) Review of David E. Cooper (ed), Aesthetics The Classic Readings (Oxford; Blackwell, 1997) in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol.77:1, March, pp.119-120.

(1998) Review of Colin Lyas, Aesthetics: The Fundamentals of Philosophy (London; University College London Press, 1997) in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol.76:4, December, 1998. pp.647-649.

Invitations to Speak

2015 Keynote speaker at the Australasian Post-graduate Philosophy Conference, Adelaide. "What Art Does: Insight, Imagination and Belief".

2014 Cinematic Realism, Workshop convened by Lisa Trahair, Robert Sinnerbrink and James Phillips, University of NSW.

2013 Chair and Introduction to Public Lecture given by Ellen Dissanayake, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide.

2012 Invited Speaker. Artists' Week. "Seeing Into Ubiquity" Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Convenor: Victoria Lynn.

2012 Invited to present "Themes from Cavell: Improvisation, Fraudulence and Intention" to the Themes from Cavell Conference, University of Sydney. Convenor: David Macarthur.

2012 Invited speaker "Visions of What Could Be", Art Gallery of South Australia Autumn Lecture Series. Convenor: David O'Connor.

2012 Books and Arts Daily, ABC Radio National, March 7th, interviewed by Michael Cathcart on Beauty.

2012 Invited respondent to Anthony Uhlmann on "Meaning in Art and Meaning in Nature", JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide. Convenor: Nicholas Jose.

2012 Guest speaker in the Centre for Ideas at the Victorian College of the Arts. Convenor: Elizabeth Presa.

2011 Invited Speaker. Symposium in association with an exhibition of work by German artist Mischa Kuball at Artspace, Sydney, August 26, 1-4pm. "Mirrors, Doubles, Shadows, Caves: Plato and Contemporary Art." Convenor: Blair French.

2011 Invited Speaker. Art Gallery of South Australia. Forum - In Bed with Tracey Emin. Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide. Convenor: David O'Connor.

2010 Invited Speaker. Symposium: Interpreting and Assessing Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment, American Philosophical Association, Pacific Division, San Francisco. Convenor Professor David Hills (Stanford University).

2010 Invited Symposium on Kant's Aesthetic Formalism, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, UNSW. Convenor Dr. James Philips (UniNSW)

2010 Key note address to the Graduation Ceremony at the Adelaide Central School of Art.

2009 Guest speaker, Fine Art Academy of Berlin (Olafur Eliasson's Studio).

2009 Guest speaker, Philosophy and Aesthetics Research Group, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

2008 Philosopher's Zone, Saturday 23rd February, ABC Radio National.

2007 A symposium on Bio-aesthetics at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

2006 Guest speaker on Australia Talks Back, ABC Radio National, 13th July on the topic of Beauty.

2004 American Society of Aesthetics Conference, Pacific Division, California, USA.

2003 Invited to participate in a symposium on the Nature of Beauty by National Science Week Festival Canberra. Broadcast on All in the Mind, Radio National, Sunday 24th August at 1.00 and Wednesday 27th August at 2.00.

2000 Public lecture entitled: "Aesthetics and Cognitive Science: Illuminating Each Other" at the University of Houston. Organized jointly by the Department of Philosophy and the Cognitive Science initiative, University of Houston.

Selection of Recent Paper Presentations

2014 "Shaping Experience Upstream" NZ Association of Philosophy Conference, University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

2013 "Objectivity without Objects: The Procedural Constraints of Aesthetic Judgment" to the International Association of Aesthetics, Krakow, Poland.

2011 "Aesthetic Autonomy: Tracing the Kantian Legacy to Olafur Eliasson" to the European Society of Aesthetics, Grenoble, France.

2011 "The Meta-Ethical Dimension of Art: Eliasson's Art and Kant's Sensus Communis" to the Eye and Mind, Interdisciplinary Research Forum, (Art History and Philosophy), University College Cork, Ireland. Convenors: Julia Jansen & Ed Krcma.

2011 "The Meta-Ethical Dimension of Art: Eliasson's Art and Kant's Sensus Communis" to the Philosophy Department, National University of Ireland, Galway, convened by Paul Crowther.

2011 "The Aesthetics of Emotion", presented to the Interdisciplinary Collaboratory ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions, Change Program, University of Adelaide. Convenors: David Lemmings and Ann Brookes.

2010 “Before Art Ended: Reuniting Art with Meta-ethics through the work of Olafur Eliasson”, American Society of Aesthetics, Pacific Division, Asilomar, Pacific Grove, USA.


2010 "Aesthetic Autonomy: Adorno, Habermas and olafur Eliasson." To a Symposiusm on Art history and Philosophy at the 2010 Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Adelaide.

2009 “The Metaphysics of Aesthetic Autonomy: ”, presented to the Australasian Association of Philosophy, Melbourne University.


2009 “Beauty as harmony of the soul: the aesthetic of the Stoics”, presented to Eighth International Conference on Greek Research, Flinders University, Adelaide.

2009 “Aesthetic Autonomy: The Origins of Normative Pragmatics in Critical Theory”, presented to the Images of a Demystified World: Critical Theory Conference, John Cabot University, May 13-15, Rome, Italy.

2009 “Aesthetic Autonomy in Adorno and Habermas”, presented to the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, Nov-Dec, Monash, Melbourne.

Professional Associations

Member of the Advisory Committee of the Aesthetics Research Centre at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK since 2012.

Member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide since 2013.

Assessor for the Australian Research Council since 1999-2007; OzReader 2008-2010.

Examiner for PhD and Masters theses.

Referee for range of philosophical journals and a selection of art historical and psychology journals.

Academic Board Member, Adelaide Central School of Art 2009 cont.

Member of the following organizations, presenting at their conferences, publishing, refereeing and writing book reviews for their associated journals:

  • American Philosophical Association
  • American Society of Aesthetics
  • Aristotelian Mind Society, UK
  • Art Association of Australia and New Zealand
  • Australasian Association of Philosophy
  • Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy
  • British Society of Aesthetics
  • European Society of Aesthetics
  • Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics

Assessing and Reviewing

  • Australian Research Council: 1999-2009, 2015
  • Swiss National Science Foundation 2015, 2016
  • European Research Council 2015
  • Referee for a range of philosophical journals including: Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophers' Imprint, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Compass, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, British Journal of Aesthetics and Journal of Aesthetic Education



2010-13 Chief Examiner for South Australian Universities' Foundation Studies Program in Logic and Clear Thinking at Eynesbury College.

2002 Expert Witness on School Bullying, David Hooper Solicitor, Sydney NSW.

2001 Expert Witness on School Bullying, The Hargreaves Practice, Sydney NSW.

1999-2000 Research Circles Project-National Schools Network.

1998 Mediator:appointment dispute for the Catholic EducationOffice,Canberra.

1998 Expert Witness, Duty of Care in schools, NSW Crown Solicitor's Office.

Art Exhibitions

1981 Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.

1981 Capital Permanent Art Award, Geelong Art Gallery (Geelong, Vic).

1983 Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.

1984 Roar Galleries, Brunswick St. (Fitzroy, Melbourne).


Expertise for Media Contact

CategoriesArts & Culture, Ethics
Expertisephilosophical aesthetics; imagination and ethics, conditions of community

Entry last updated: Thursday, 23 Feb 2017

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