About

Ronald W. Hepburn (1927–2008)

‘In his exploration of the links and boundaries between the aesthetic, moral, and religious, he was drawn to a particular set of ideas: wonder, imagination, the sublime, freedom, life’s meaning, mystery, respect for nature, and the sacred. These interests were brought together with autobiography, narrative, and the shaping of the ethical life to challenge moral philosophy’s preoccupation with rules and principles in an important paper  ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’, his contribution to an Aristotelian Society – Mind Association symposium with Iris Murdoch in 1956.

Hepburn often remarked that one’s philosophical and personal lives are intimately connected, shaping each other significantly. This was reflected in his interest in intellectual autobiography, and in recent years he had made some progress on his own philosophical life story. His love of nature and the mystical-aesthetic experiences that motivated his thinking were grounded in a lifetime of walking in the hills and mountains of Aberdeenshire and the Lake District. Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Clare, and Proust were among his favourites in poetry and literature. Hepburn’s lively interest in classical music was shared with Agnes, his wife, a violinist and music teacher. Early on in our friendship we discovered a mutual interest in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich: great landscapes layered with themes from the sublime. On many occasions we swapped nature stories and favourite views; I especially recall receiving a photograph he had taken of Helvellyn’s snow-covered peak while walking there some late winter day. […]

Much of Hepburn’s work in aesthetics is collected in two volumes, ‘Wonder’  and Other Essays: Eight Studies in Aesthetics and Neighbouring Fields  (1984) and The Reach of the Aesthetic: Collected Essays on Art and Nature  (2001). In addition to the 1966 paper [‘Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty’], several influential papers appear in the first volume, including  ‘Emotions and Emotional Qualities ’ and a rare treatment of the concept in ‘Wonder’.  The second volume is especially notable for two new, substantial essays on ‘Aesthetic and Moral: Links and Limits’ and for developing a theory of imagination across three essays.  He shows why imagination cannot be identified with fantasy, defends its value for knowledge, and examines its place in aesthetic and religious experiences. A recurring theme in the book is how aesthetic – religious – moral feeling involves both respect for nature and discovery/self-understanding. The final essay, ‘ Values and Cosmic Imagination’ ,  studies the metaphysical dimension of this through the concept of ‘ cosmic imagination’ and sets out to find a balance between an overly humanizing and overly distancing approach to appreciating the natural world.’

Emily Brady: Ronald W. Hepburn: In Memoriam. The British Journal of Aesthetics 49 (2009): 199–202, 200–201.