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Aesthetics in Europe and the Americas

Eighteenth-century Foundations

Aesthetics in the European tradition, conceived as philosophical inquiry into the experience of beauty, acquired its name and essential nature in the eighteenth century, even though cognate concerns had been debated in Europe for two millennia before that. The term aesthetics, from the Greek aesthēsis (perception), was coined, in roughly its modern sense, in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762), a German philosopher who sought to develop a "science of sensitive cognition." Baumgarten's unfinished book Aesthetica was the first to bear this new term in its title. In fact the term took some time to catch on and was not established in Great Britain, for example, until the 1830s. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), perhaps the most influential of all aestheticians, was slow to adopt the new usage, remarking in the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787) that "The Germans are the only people who currently make use of the word 'aesthetic' in order to signify what others call the critique of taste." In that same passage Kant lambastes what he describes as "the abortive attempt made by Baumgarten … to bring the critical treatment of the beautiful under rational principles." But whatever its name—aesthetics or critique of taste—a distinctive inquiry gathered pace through the eighteenth century and came to define what is now universally acknowledged as the field of aesthetics. What are the characteristics of this new inquiry?

Judgments of taste.

Several developments in the eighteenth century form the foundations of modern European aesthetics. One is a growing interest in judgments of taste, notably how attributions of beauty are grounded. Is beauty an objective quality of nature itself or is it merely a projection of the mind? An important impetus for this debate was the writing of Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671–1713), third earl of Shaftesbury, whose Neoplatonist work Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) presents the view that beauty, like goodness, resides in the harmony of the natural world, as created by God, and that humans can immediately discern such beauty (or goodness) by an "inward eye" or "moral sense." Furthermore, the enjoyment of beauty has a disinterested quality distinct from the desire of possession. The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), adopted the notion of "moral sense," including the concomitant sense of beauty, and sought in detail to show how beauty, grounded in "uniformity amidst variety," could be the object of inter-subjectively valid judgments. David Hume's (1711–1776) influential essay "Of the Standard of Taste," first published in his Four Dissertations (1757), gives explicit focus to "taste" as a capacity for judging beauty, and while emphasizing that beauty "is no quality in things themselves," nevertheless finds a "standard of taste" in the joint verdict of qualified judges. Hume's focus is on taste in cultural matters, especially poetry, rather than natural beauty, but judgments about art and nature were seldom at this stage differentiated. In Kant's definitive contribution to aesthetics, the first part of his Critique of Judgment (1790), we find many of the threads of the previous debates subtly interwoven. Kant proposes, in contrast to Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, a clear divide between moral and aesthetic judgments, highlighting the role of disinterestedness in the latter; he steers a path between the avowed subjectivity of beauty and the justifiable aspiration of universality in judgments about beauty; and he distinguishes natural beauty from the beauty of art. For Kant a "pure judgment of taste" rests on a universally communicable, disinterested pleasure in the appearance of an object apart from any conceptualization of that object.

The sublime.

A second feature that characterizes the birth of modern aesthetics in the eighteenth century is also closely associated with Kant. This is the interest given to the sublime in addition to the beautiful. Kant's account of the sublime, in the Critique of Judgment, as well as in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1763), is again definitive. The sublime rests on the vastness and overwhelming power of nature and the awe that these inspire in humans. Thunder and lightning, hurricanes and volcanoes, towering mountains and crashing waterfalls are judged sublime and induce a mix of fear and pleasure. Kant's own discussion is complex, distinguishing the "mathematical sublime" (vastness) and the "dynamical sublime" (power), and relating response to the sublime with reflection on the greatness of reason as "a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense." The pleasure of the sublime derives from awareness that, in spite of physical frailty in the face of terrifying nature, humans remain superior as rational and moral beings. Interest in the sublime did not originate in the eighteenth century, and discussions often referred back to the literary treatise On the Sublime, attributed to "Longinus" from the first century C.E., although the principal focus in that work is not the awesomeness of nature so much as the sublime style in rhetoric. Edmund Burke's (1729–1797) Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was an important precursor to Kant's discussion and developed the idea that aesthetic responses stemmed from universal predispositions in human nature.

Fine arts.

A third relevant factor in the foundations of aesthetics was the emergence of a conception of the fine arts (beaux arts) as belonging to a single category. The seminal work was Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe (1746; Fine arts reduced to a single principle) by Abbé Charles Batteux (1713–1780). This work listed the fine arts, whose aim is pleasure, as music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and dance. In another category, those arts that combine pleasure and usefulness, he puts eloquence and architecture, while theater is deemed a combination of all the arts. The "single principle" is "the imitation of beautiful nature." Few followed Batteux in stressing imitation as the definitive element in art, but by the time of Kant's discussion in the Critique of Judgment, the notion of the fine arts was taken for granted. Kant himself offered a quite different common principle of fine art—that of genius—anticipating an aesthetic conception associated with Romanticism. Genius, for Kant, is "a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given" and fine art, he insists, "is only possible as a product of genius."

Conditions in eighteenth-century Europe seemed entirely conducive to the flourishing of aesthetics as an inquiry into the principles of beauty and the fine arts. Marxist historians offer a partial explanation in terms of the rise of a confident and prosperous middle class with the time and inclination to indulge a love of beauty and the display of "sensibility," "refinement," and taste. Notions of individuality and subjectivity, central to Enlightenment thought, developed in this century, as did notions of a common human nature on which universal judgments of value might be grounded. It should be emphasized, though, that many aspects of aesthetic inquiry long predate the eighteenth century. A summary survey of these is necessary to map out any adequate history of aesthetics, prior to exploring the legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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