Jennifer McMahon (1956-2023) (updated)

Jennifer McMahon, professor emerita of philosophy at the University of Adelaide, died this past June.

Professor McMahon was known for her work in aesthetics, Kant, and as she put it, “imagination, moral perception and the acculturation of pleasure to culturally specific objects.” You can learn more about her writings here.

The following obituary is by Professor McMahon’s niece, Kylie Kerr (Melbourne), with the help of McMahon’s husband, Brendan Ryan.

Professor Jennifer (Jenny) A. McMahon

Jenny was born in Melbourne, Australia on the 14th of March 1956.

Following undergraduate studies in Fine Arts and postgraduate studies in Education, Jenny began her career as a visual artist, teacher, and art critic. During the early to mid-1980s, she exhibited in various solo and group exhibitions in Melbourne galleries and studied 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 a springboard for her later philosophical work. After completing a master’s degree at the University of Melbourne on “The Possibility of Objectivity in Aesthetic Evaluation in The Visual Arts, she commenced her PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1992 on “Aesthetics, Cognition and Creativity”, seeking to develop (what she termed at the time) ‘an interactive theory of beauty’.

After completing her PhD, Jenny took up a post as lecturer 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 her seminal book, Aesthetics and Material Beauty: Aesthetics Naturalized, (Routledge, 2007). Drawing upon contemporary theories of mind from philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, Jenny argued that beauty is grounded in indeterminate yet systematic principles of perception and cognition and advanced a new and original aesthetic theory she termed “critical aesthetic realism”.

Undoubtedly, Jenny’s pioneering early work was instrumental in naturalizing aesthetics, and in turn, that development was a catalyst for a major shift in thinking about many topics in aesthetics and philosophy of art. In the Introduction to his book, How Pictures Complete Us (Stanford University Press, 2016), Paul Crowther pointed out ‘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, 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 the state of South Australia. At various times during her career, Jenny was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Houston, University of Maryland, Rutgers University, the ANU and the University of Melbourne.

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 comments in a Tribute to Jenny in the next issue of the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) Newsletter, Art and Ethics in a Material World is an ambitious and demanding book which makes ‘a very significant contribution to aesthetics’.

Between 2016 and 2019, Jenny led an Australian and international team of researchers and artists on a large, innovative Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Discovery Project, which also received strong support from the ASA and the American Philosophical Association (APA). This project resulted in numerous 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 essays by leading 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 collection of her selected essays, spanning some three decades of work, will be published in 2025.

From 2014 to 2017, Jenny served the wider philosophy community as Executive Secretary 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 recent 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.

In June 2019, Jenny was diagnosed with an 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, and 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.

*  *  *

Professor McMahon’s obituary was published in both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers’ digital editions on July 13th, 2023.

Submitted by Dr Kylie Trask-Kerr (Professor McMahon’s niece) and written with the help of Brendan Ryan (Professor McMahon’s husband)

UPDATE (8/9/23): The latest issue of the American Society for Aesthetics American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter features tributes to Professor McMahon from Elizabeth Coleman, Cynthia Freeland, Ivan Gaskel, Paul Guyer, and Mohan Matthen.

UPDATE (12/3/23): The School of Philosophy at ANU has posted a tribute to Jennifer McMahon here.

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Martita Orange
Martita Orange
10 months ago

Let me begin by offering my sincere sympathy and prayers to her family! Reading her obituary it appeared that she truly left an amazing legacy and I am sure that
that she will continue to live on in hearts and minds of all the people that she encountered during her life time.
Job well done!!!!

Brendan Ryan
Brendan Ryan
Reply to  Martita Orange
10 months ago

Thank you so much Martita for your kindness and consideration.
Jenny did leave an amazing legacy which will flourish in many unexpected but beneficial ways in the years ahead.
And she will live on in the hearts and minds of all the many people who knew her well, including the thousands of school, university and visual art students she taught over a long, varied and satisfying teaching career.
There is an ancient Jewish saying that two of Jenny’s oldest (and much loved) friends told me about after Jenny’s passing, and that is, ‘May her memory be a blessing’. And so I said at the beginning of my Tribute to Jenny at her Funeral Service here in Adelaide: ‘May Jenny’s memory be a blessing’. In Hebrew, Zichrona Livracha Jenny.
Again, much appreciation.
Brendan Ryan

David Dempsey
David Dempsey
10 months ago

Vale Professor Jenny McMahon, a woman unafraid of digging into the abstract complexity of human appreciation. I’ve just started a study of music’s shared emotional responses and think her work might contribute some pointers there. My condolences to her husband and family.

Brendan Ryan
Brendan Ryan
Reply to  David Dempsey
10 months ago

Out here, out there

A poem in memory of Jennifer A. McMahon,
Philosopher, Artist & Teacher
Out here
where beauty is shrouded in silence.
And silence, perhaps an eternal silence,
is lightly brushed by a very low, vibrating humming sound.
The collective buzzing of countless insects,
driven by nature and need,
intent on their daily labours in the orange-red dirt and dust,
among an immense, bleached green-grey-white sea of saltbush
stretching away through a gently undulating haze
of the afternoon’s brutal, oppressive heat
towards a far distant horizon, an unsettling gauze
of seemingly shifting colours, contours, and shapes.
Out there
in an ancient, largely barren landscape
where beauty is carved and sculpted by
the infinitely slow hands of weather and time,
scorching early summer winds burn with each shallow breath,
almost silencing birds huddled forlornly together
in stunted, defiant trees and bushes
lining the shallow banks of a dry creek.
But look closely at the layers of parched dust and coarse sand,
frequent faint or fading impressions of life can still be seen out there,
where all living things appear to lean stoically against
the indifferent passage of time.

(C)opyright 2023, Brendan R. Ryan

Jennifer Salem
Jennifer Salem
10 months ago

So grateful for all her contributions.. Jenny was the epitome of selfless and cultural giving. She was a gift to the world.

Michel-Antoine Xhignesse
10 months ago

Several more reminiscences are now available in the ASA’s Newsletter:

10 months ago

My deepest sympathies to you for your loss! I too lost a loved one my dad two weeks ago July 28,2023 he was also born in 1956.

Brendan Ryan
Brendan Ryan
Reply to  Tiffany
10 months ago

My very sincere condolences back to you and your family. Sixty-seven years old is far too young for a person to die. Perhaps, one of the hardest things for a person to accept when they lose a loved one – even when their loved one has an incurable metastatic cancer as Jenny did – is the finality of death. The finality of that person’s physical being. No longer being able to share the ‘little things’ and simple joys of everyday life with them. Not hearing their voice or laughter, not being able to share with them your daily ‘triumphs and tribulations’ or not being able share theirs, and so on.
Grief is an unpredictable beast, not easily tamed. The only course is to try (as best one can) to work slowly through one’s grief. I doubt that one actually ever ‘gets over it’. At least not entirely. But you can I think eventually regain or recreate the emotional space for all those loving feelings, thoughts and memories to seep gradually back into your inner ‘being’ – and to permeate your daily life again in really important ways. And that to my mind, is a core part of your loved one’s ‘legacy’.
All best wishes, Brendan.