Philosopher, Educator and Artist
The ANU School of Philosophy recently lost one of its most esteemed PhD alumnae with the death of Professor Jenny McMahon in June 2023. Jenny is now considered an internationally important and influential philosopher for her work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art across a diverse range of topics including cognition, perception, imagination, creativity, beauty, the sublime, morality, aesthetic judgment, and pleasure. She is also viewed by many leading and emerging colleagues as having developed an original, coherent, persuasive, and at times, provocative theoretical lens through which to consider, interpret and understand important elements of Kant’s philosophy in our contemporary context. In retrospect, Jenny may well come to be seen as one of the leading aestheticians of her generation of global scholars.
Following undergraduate studies in Fine Arts and postgraduate studies in Education, Jenny began her career as a visual artist, art teacher, and art critic. During the early to mid-1980s, she exhibited in various solo and group exhibitions in Melbourne galleries and studied painting and drawing at the Institute of Art and Restoration in Florence on an Italian Government Scholarship.
Jenny’s career as a visual artist and art teacher served as an inspiration and a springboard for her later philosophical studies and work. After completing a master’s degree by research at the University of Melbourne on “The Possibility of Objectivity in Aesthetic Evaluation in The Visual Arts”, Jenny moved to Canberra to join her husband, Brendan, when she was almost 36 years old and pregnant with their first child. She commenced her PhD at the ANU in February 1992 on “Aesthetics, Cognition and Creativity”, seeking to develop – what she termed at the time – ‘an interactive theory of beauty’.
The next four years were a very challenging and busy time for both Jenny and Brendan (who was by then, working as a Ministerial speechwriter for the Keating Labor Government and undertaking part-time postgraduate studies at the ANU).
Brendan recalls this time fondly:
“One of the favourite memories we shared of the ANU was our ‘lunch dates’ on a Tuesday (my study day off from work). We would always meet in front of the Chifley Library, and if the weather was okay, we would find a nice spot to sit and enjoy our homemade lunch in the beautiful grounds of the university. Autumn and Spring were especially delightful. Looking back, they were halcyon days! Of course, we were juggling all sorts of tasks and responsibilities, had lots of worries, and were both overworked, stressed and always tired. But I remember none of that now”.
During her candidature, Jenny received strong encouragement and rigorous, constructive guidance from her two supervisors, the late Professor Karen Neander (who at that time was a Postdoctoral and then a Research Fellow in the Philosophy Program, Research School of Social Sciences, before she moved to the Johns Hopkins University in 1996), and Professor Paul Thom (Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts). Dr Ian Gold (then a Research Fellow in the University’s Optical Sciences Centre, Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering – now Professor of Philosophy & Psychiatry at McGill University) also showed considerable interest in Jenny’s doctoral research and provided her with valuable advice and generous encouragement.
Professor Nicholas Southwood, current Head of the ANU School of Philosophy, noted recently that: “In addition to her outstanding scholarly contributions, I would also like to acknowledge the pioneering role Jenny played in helping to change the complexion and culture of Philosophy here at ANU and elsewhere. When she was a PhD student here, there were literally zero women on the RSSS Philosophy faculty with continuing positions and pitifully few women full stop. That must have been very challenging – to say the least. Yet in sticking it out and achieving such remarkable success, Jenny helped to pave the way for future generations of women in our discipline. While we still have a long way to go, in 2023 five of 12 continuing members of the ANU School of Philosophy are women (including three Professors). I sincerely hope that Jenny understood the role she played in helping to bring about this remarkable change.”
In a recent American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) Memorial Tribute to Jenny, Professor Emerita Cynthia Freeland (University of Houston) recalled first meeting Jenny at the ANU in 1995 (while she was a Visiting Fellow) and commented that she found Jenny’s research project ‘…ambitious and novel, and Jenny ably defended her approach by drawing upon new research in the cognitive sciences’.
After completing her PhD, Jenny took up a full-time position as lecturer in Arts Education at the University of Canberra in 1996, before moving to the University of Adelaide at the beginning of 2002. During this period, Jenny published a series of groundbreaking, interdisciplinary articles, and began working on her seminal book, Aesthetics and Material Beauty: Aesthetics Naturalized, (Routledge, 2007). Drawing upon contemporary theories of mind from philosophy, psychology, biology, cognitive science, evolutionary studies, and neuroscience, Jenny argued that beauty is grounded in indeterminate yet systematic principles of perception and cognition, and she advanced a new and original aesthetic theory which she termed “critical aesthetic realism”.
Aesthetics and Material Beauty received many highly favourable reviews in leading international journals including two reviews in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (JAAC). The first by Paul Guyer – a leading aesthetician and an eminent Kant scholar – who commented recently that the book was ‘…a very original attempt to deploy Kant for contemporary purposes in aesthetics’, and who concluded his JAAC review by stating: ‘In my view, her work has contributed the most to the interpretation of the central concept of Kant’s aesthetics of any of the books under review’. While Professor Daniel Vaillancourt (Loyola University) spoke of ‘the genius of McMahon’s novel theory’ and commented: ‘A complex read, the book nonetheless rewards the effort in multifold ways. It is a virtuoso performance.’ He concluded, ‘The book is highly recommended, not because its findings on beauty are definitive (the study of the brain and its functions is still an evolving field), but because its reading may spur a novel understanding of one of life’s most fundamental experiences, beauty.’
Writing in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Dr Katerina Deligiorgi (University of Sussex) concluded her review by stating: ‘McMahon…pursues her synthetic vision with verve and determination, claiming a place for constructive philosophy within a paradigm shaped by science, while also conveying forcefully the seriousness and importance of her topic.’
Undoubtedly, Jenny’s pioneering early work was instrumental in naturalizing aesthetics. In turn, that development was a catalyst for a major shift in thinking about many topics in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. In the Introduction to his book, How Pictures Complete Us (Stanford University Press, 2016), Paul Crowther pointed out that ‘Jennifer A. McMahon’s excellent Aesthetics and Material Beauty (2007) develops an account of the general relation between art and beauty that is only one of a few to combine intellectual rigor with keen acuity in discussing particular works of art.’
Despite several long battles with breast cancer and other significant medical conditions, Jenny continued to build a strong international reputation for pathfinding research in philosophy and interdisciplinary scholarship, most notably in aesthetics, philosophy of art, Kant studies, and meta-ethics. Consequently, she rose to become the first female Professor of Philosophy in the University of Adelaide’s 149 years history, and the first in South Australia. From 2010 to 2013, Jenny was Head of the Philosophy Department, and in 2014-15 she served as Director of Postgraduate Studies of the Faculty of Arts and represented it on various University-wide Research Committees. At various times during her career, Jenny was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Houston, University of Maryland, Rutgers University, University of Melbourne, and the ANU.
Jenny’s second book, Art and Ethics in a Material World: Kant’s Pragmatist Legacy (Routledge 2014) also broke new ground in ongoing debates about the ethical dimensions of art, and its role within and between diverse communities and societies. Drawing again upon Kant and his legacy in pragmatist theories of meaning and language, Jenny argued that aesthetic reflective judgment cultivates a capacity exercised by moral judgment, which is conducive to community, and plays a pivotal role in the evolution of language, meaning and knowledge. As Cynthia Freeland commented in the ASA’s Memorial Tribute to Jenny: ‘Art and Ethics in a Material World is an ambitious, demanding, and rich book…and one that makes a very significant contribution to aesthetics’.
Jennifer K. Dobe similarly concluded her review of the book:
‘…her contribution of a pragmatist theory of meaning and cultural pluralism grounded in a rich and nuanced view of aesthetic reflective judgement is important, challenging and exhilarating. The reader is rewarded with a novel integration of wide-ranging influences that constitutes not only an attractive view in its own right, but is also a productive and provocative lens through which to view Kant’s legacy.’
While Samantha Matherne concluded her review of Art and Ethics in a Material World:
‘…McMahon’s book not only offers us a novel way to understand the potential of Kant’s third Critique within a pragmatist framework, but also her theory of the ethical significance of Art promises to shed light on, if not all, many works of art, artistic practices, and aesthetic experiences.’
Between 2016 and 2019, Jenny led an Australian and international team of researchers and artists on a large, innovative and ambitious Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Discovery Project, on ‘Taste and Community’ which also received strong support from the ASA and the American Philosophical Association (APA). As Professor Mohan Matthen (University of Toronto) – a member of the team – commented recently, Jenny ‘…brought philosophers together with artists and members of the wider public to discuss not only how art could contribute to communities, but also how communities were a vital part of art itself.’ He went on to add ‘Jenny was an amazing facilitator of interdisciplinary conversation.’ A sentiment wholeheartedly shared by another participant of the Project, Cynthia Freeland, who stated ‘Jenny was an entrepreneurial organizer with a strong interest in promoting interdisciplinary scholarly communities in order to highlight the communicative powers of art.’ In short, Jenny’s keen orientation to interdisciplinarity and the (often underlying) value she saw in attempting to find a common basis for exchange between the different ‘languages’ of academic disciplines or indeed, between the different ‘languages’ of various art practices, helped drive and underpin her innovative approach to ‘doing philosophy’.
Numerous members of the ASA, APA and Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) participated in the research project, which in turn, resulted in many interdisciplinary research outputs including three major publications edited by Jenny: the inaugural issue of the Australasian Philosophical Review (March 2017) on ‘The Pleasure of Art’, Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment (Routledge 2018), and a Focus issue of the highly regarded Curator: The Museum Journal (2019) on ‘The Ancient Quarrel Between Art and Philosophy in Contemporary Visual Art Exhibitions’.
Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment, a collection of stimulating and provocative essays by leading international scholars, sets forth a new understanding of aesthetic-moral judgment organised around three key concepts: pleasure, reflection, and accountability. Its overarching theme is that art is not merely representation or expression like any other form; critically, it has the capacity to promote a shared moral understanding and helps us to engage in meaning-making.
In recent years, Jenny contributed to major philosophy and literature reference books and online research resources including The Palgrave Kant Handbook (2017), The Oxford Bibliographies Online: Philosophy (2019), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature (2020), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Literary Theory (2022), The Routledge Handbook of Liberal Naturalism (2022), Bloomsbury Contemporary Aesthetics Online (2022), and The Palgrave Handbook on the Philosophy of Friedrich Schiller (2023).
In summary, Jenny made a significant contribution to the discipline of philosophy and influenced philosophers and artists around the world. A major collection of Jenny’s selected essays – written over nearly three decades of philosophical work – will be published by a leading international publisher in late 2025.
As Professor Garrett Cullity, now based at the ANU, commented recently:
“Jenny was a major force in philosophical aesthetics in Australia and a tremendous colleague. Her unique combination of talents as a practising artist and distinguished philosopher gave her scholarship an authority that also made Jenny an internationally significant figure in the field. Drawing especially from themes in the Kantian and pragmatist traditions of aesthetics, she developed a body of work whose depth and breadth continued to grow over the course of her career, which has ended far too soon. Jenny undoubtedly leaves a legacy of published work that will continue to reward close study by students of the Western artistic tradition and its broader intellectual and cultural framework, and an enduring memory of her dynamic and inspirational teaching among many of her former students.” 
From 2014 to 2017, Jenny served the wider philosophy community as Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) and was a strong, effective advocate for the interests and advancement of women and postgraduate students in the profession. Along with several other past office holders of the Association, Jenny was honoured at the AAP’s 2023 Centenary Conference in Melbourne.
In 2018 Jenny also served on the Australian Research Council’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Evaluation – the triennial research assessment of all the nation’s higher education institutions – as a Member of its Humanities and Creative Arts Panel. Following Jenny’s death, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the ARC, Ms Judi Zielke commented:
“Professor McMahon’s impact on early-career researchers, in particular women researchers, whom she generously supported over the course of her career, will endure. She will continue to be an inspiration to all…The Australian Research Council is particularly grateful for Professor McMahon’s contribution to research excellence in Australia both as an assessor in our grant schemes and Excellence in Research for Australia Humanities and Creative Arts Panel Member”.
In addition, Jenny also served as a Grants Assessor for the European Research Council (since 2016), the Swiss National Science Foundation (since 2015) and the National Science Centre, Poland (since 2020).
Over the course of her career, Jenny served as referee of book manuscripts for many leading international academic publishers including Oxford University Press, University of Chicago Press, University of Edinburgh Press, Taylor and Francis, Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, Bloomsbury and Blackwell. She was also frequently sought as a referee for many leading international academic journals across several disciplines including philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and the visual arts.
Jenny’s involvement with the wider Australian community went well beyond the discipline of philosophy. Indeed, whenever possible, Jenny firmly believed that philosophers should seek to engage actively with their wider communities including via the media. During her time at the University of Canberra (UC) she served for several years as the University’s representative on the Board of the UC Senior Secondary College Lake Ginninderra. In 1998 she was also appointed as a mediator by the ACT Catholic Education Office in an employment dispute. Further afield, Jenny served as an expert witness for both the NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office and the Sydney-based The Hargreaves Practice on the duty-of-care owed to students in secondary schools. During these years, Jenny also acted as a consultant to the National Schools Network on its ‘Research Circles Project: Reaffirming the High School Years’. After moving to the University of Adelaide, Jenny continued her involvement with the wider community including being a University of Adelaide representative on the SACE Board of South Australia,serving as the Chief Examiner for Eynesbury College’s Logic and Clear Thinking Foundation course (2010-13) and on the Academic Board of the Adelaide Central School of Art (2009-13). From 2013 until her death, Jenny was also a Member of the John M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.
Professor Peter Høj, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide, summed up Jenny’s multifaceted contribution to the University of Adelaide and the wider Australian community when he stated:
“Jenny was a truly valued member of our community, and was well-liked and respected by students, colleagues, and peers nationally and internationally. She brought a unique voice to philosophy, with her work focussed on aesthetics, and the nature of art and beauty, drawing upon her background in fine arts. Jenny was the first female philosopher to be promoted to Professor in the University’s history; a remarkable achievement which speaks to her capabilities. Her contributions have been many and impactful…”
In June 2019, Jenny was diagnosed with aggressive ‘Triple Negative’ breast cancer. Multiple surgeries, protracted chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment followed. She retired from the University of Adelaide in April 2022, and was immediately appointed Emerita Professor of Philosophy. Jenny faced mounting health challenges during the last year of her life. After a courageous struggle with an incurable metastatic cancer, she passed away peacefully in Adelaide on 5th June 2023, aged 67 years.
Jenny is survived by her husband, Brendan Ryan and their son, Lachlan McMahon Ryan, as well as six of her sisters and brothers, and many nieces and nephews. She will be fondly remembered, sorely missed, and always loved by all who knew her well.