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.
* * *
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.